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2020-21 Marquette Men’s Basketball Player Preview: #4 Theo John

We get one final year of the best rim protector that the Golden Eagles have had in decades.

Marquette v DePaul Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The 2020-21 college basketball season is right around the corner, no matter what the coronavirus pandemic says, so let’s get into the Marquette Golden Eagles basketball roster and take a look at what to expect from each player this season. We’ll be going through the players one by one: First MU’s freshmen in alphabetical order, then the immediately eligible sophomore transfer, then the redshirt freshman, and then the five returning players, going in order of average minutes per game last season from lowest to highest.

We’re going to organize our thoughts about the upcoming season as it relates to each player into categories:

  • Reasonable Expectations
  • Why You Should Get Excited
  • Potential Pitfalls

With that out of the way, it’s time to talk about the player on the roster with the most points scored in a Marquette uniform.........

Theo John

Senior - #4 - Forward - 6’9” - 245 lbs. - Minneapolis, Minnesota

You read that last sentence of the preamble correctly: Out of all of the players on the Marquette roster, Theo John is the one who has scored the most career points in a blue and gold uniform. Yes, that’s a very specific definition because both Koby McEwen and Jose Perez have John beat in total career points scored. But McEwen’s 276 a year ago is easily beaten by John’s 469 in 97 appearances while Perez and his 862 points at Gardner-Webb won’t step onto a court for Marquette until Wednesday night.

Now, I don’t point this out about John to launch into a discussion of how he’s an underrated offensive force that needs to be respected and praised and raised into the spotlight this coming season. It’s really more of a discussion of exactly how little experience playing together that this current Marquette roster has. However, it does lend itself to something that I do want to talk about in regards to John.

Theo John has been a reliable known quantity for the past two seasons for Marquette. After a freshman year where he played backup minutes behind Matt Heldt and wasn’t even able to fill in for all of the time that Heldt wasn’t on the court, John has stepped forward to be exactly the kind of defensive stalwart that we thought he could be from the get-go. A hand injury very early in the year hampered John to a degree in 2019-20, but he was still a top 250 offensive rebounder after ranking #158 in the country in rate per KenPom the year before. John was top 40 in block rate after ranking #17th as a sophomore. His shooting percentage took a dip, but I’ll take 54.9% as a down year from a guy any day of the week. Even with a bum hand in a wrap all year long, John even found a way to reduce his turnover rate year over year while playing more minutes. With a firebrand like Markus Howard on the roster, Marquette didn’t need Theo John to do much in terms of offense, and so he didn’t do much. That’s fine! He was really great at what he was out there to do, so that’s all you need to see.

Reasonable Expectations

It’s a really simple expectation for John: More of the same. I don’t just mean that in terms of his 5.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks that he averaged the past two seasons. Yes, obviously, that’s great for his playing time. I literally mean more of it. The biggest knock on John is, of course, his personal fouls. The big man from Minnesota is averaging 3.0 fouls per game while only playing in 17.4 minutes per game for the Golden Eagles. If you narrow it down to when he was the starter for Steve Wojciechowski the past two years, then that’s 3.2 fouls per game in 20.2 minutes per game. If you want to think about it in a more analytical sense because the fouls are limiting his minutes and thus limiting the total number of fouls, John has been averaging 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes in his career. In the past two seasons, that’s 6.3 per 40.

Now, the good news is that he had a career low of fouls per 40 last season at just 5.1 per KenPom.com. The bad news is that if you’re averaging more than enough fouls to disqualify you from games in 40 minutes, that means you’re not actually playing enough minutes to get disqualified regularly. See how that works? By going from 7.4 fouls/40 to 5.1/40, John was able to squeeze out nearly an extra minute per game on average to his contributions to the team last year.

It’s that adding that little bit of extra time that’s the big deal for Marquette this year and why we need to see more from John this season. Here are the candidates to play minutes behind Theo John at the 5 position on the floor for Marquette this year, going in order of likelihood by my estimation: Dawson Garcia, Justin Lewis, Oso Ighodaro. All three are freshmen, of course, and none of them immediately jump out at you as 100% prepared to defend the paint. Garcia has the advantage by being the tallest guy on the team, but his agility may lend itself to being better deployed elsewhere. Lewis has the wingspan to potentially be able to pull it off, but he only stands 6’7”, two inches shorter than John. Ighodaro has the height, but at this point in his development, he has nowhere near the physical strength to be prepared to deal with heavy minutes in the middle.

So, that leaves John as the guy who needs to hold that spot down, and he needs to do it for long, long stretches this year. We have to file this under expectations, because it’s what the team actually needs from him this year. It doesn’t have to be 35 minutes a night, but he needs to not be in foul trouble constantly.

Why You Should Get Excited

We don’t talk about this enough, but Theo John is legitimately one of the best players that has put on a Marquette uniform in several decades. Part of the reason that we don’t talk about it enough is the fact that he’s only been playing half of the minutes over the past two seasons, of course. In 2018-19, John recorded 70 blocked shots, which is the seventh most in a season in program history and the most by any player since Faisal Abraham had 84 in 1997.

The best season in 22 years. Seniors at Marquette right now haven’t seen this kind of production before. He followed this up with 55 blocks with an injured hand, which tied for the 10th most blocks in a single season. That’s 125 blocks in two seasons. It’s the best two year run for a Marquette player since Abraham had 142 in 1996 and 1997, and that pairing came on the heels/at the same time as Amal McCaskill swatting 131 in 1995 and 1996.

Aside: Yes, Marquette had two guys recording 50+ blocks in 1995-96.

Now, this season is really up in the air as to how many games that Marquette will actually play thanks to the still somehow ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, as we talked about in the refresh of the all-time blocks chart, Theo John is 25 blocks away from moving into second place on the MU chart and 49 blocks from becoming just the second Golden Eagle to ever generate 200 blocks in a career.

He doesn’t have a shot of coming anywhere close to Jim McIlvaine’s record of 399 blocked shots, so that’s a bit of a damper. Even if he was playing 30 minutes a night the past two years and thus had a commensurate 50% increase in blocks, he’d still be only barely over 200 right now and wouldn’t have a shot at Mac’s record anyway. So it is what is.

But we don’t think about Theo John in these terms, and we should. He’s going to become the best non-McIlvaine shot blocker in MU history this season as long as MU plays about 20 games one way or another. Heck, even if they don’t and he just goes wild with it, he still might get there. The only thing really stopping him is the number of games that actually get played, because he’s clearly capable of getting a ton of blocks in limited minutes. If John can start racking up the minutes played as discussed in the previous section, it’ll be no problem at all for him.

Even better, I think he’ll have an easier time of it this season. Let’s just be honest about it: Markus Howard is short. That makes him a limited defender because there’s only so much ground he can cover. We’re not talking about whether he was good or bad, we can all admit that his leg and arm length was a limitation. To that end, there was a certain amount of picking up the slack that Theo John had to do as the rim protector to cover for Howard’s shortcomings. This year, the shortest guard on the Marquette roster is 6’2”, and that includes walk-ons Brendan Carney and Luke Fizulich. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and think that having guys who are all at least three inches (maybe more, depending on how much you believe Howard is actually 5’11”, the fakest height in sports) taller than Howard on the floor is going to be a huge benefit to John’s ability to do what he does best: Scare the holy hell out of guys going to the rim. Less moving to adjust to guys getting past Howard = more staying at home = more time to prepare = more blocks. Math!

Best case scenario? Theo John runs away with Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East, and that would be really cool to see.

Potential Pitfalls

We have to at least acknowledge that part of the reason why Theo John only averaged 20.9 minutes per game this past season is because Steve Wojciechowski didn’t want to put him on the floor. I don’t mean couldn’t relative to foul accrual, I mean chose to keep John on the bench for tactical reasons. New Year’s Day at Creighton: Eight minutes played, no fouls. Regular season finale at St. John’s: Seven minutes played, one foul. I think we can toss the Disney World game against Maryland in this pile, too: 10 minutes played, all in the first half, two fouls.

Look, I’m not saying that Theo John not playing because it’s not the best tactical option for Marquette is bad. If it’s a winning formula — this is where we point out that Marquette lost all three of the above listed games, all in kind of awful fashion — then Steve Wojciechowski and his staff should take advantage of it. Maybe the options of more mobile bigs like Garcia, Lewis, and Ighodaro will be of more benefit to Marquette than the options last year, and thus it turns into a winning play for Marquette. If it does, then it does, and we know that Wojciechowski isn’t shy about benching his best rim protector if he thinks it’s best.

The other obvious problem is the flipside of everything we already talked about in terms of John’s playing time. If he can’t figure out a way to stay on the floor, that’s a problem. It’s been two straight seasons of John getting the whistle against him that he gets. At some point, it stops being the referees are totally confused as to how to call a mass of humanity that moves like John does and starts being John’s fault for not figuring out how to play cleaner basketball. If he can’t unlock the puzzle, then he’s going to be spending half of Marquette’s minutes on the bench again, and that’s to the detriment of the team as a whole.