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What Is Marquette’s Deal With Turnovers, Anyway?

The Golden Eagles have a turnover problem on both ends of the court, and it just keeps being a problem.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are 10 games into the 2020-21 college basketball season for Marquette men’s basketball, and I think that we can officially call any national rankings in statistics an official trend for the team this year. 10 games is 400 minutes of basketball, and I think it’s safe to say that we have moved out of the Small Sample Size Theater aspect of the season and into good data that tells us what the Golden Eagles are actually doing.... or not doing.... in Steve Wojciechowski’s seventh season at the helm.

It’s the “not doing” that we’re going to focus on here, because for the fifth time in his seven years, the Golden Eagles are bad at turning the ball over on offense. In addition, for the sixth consecutive season, the Golden Eagles are creating turnovers on defense less often than they were the year before.

Let’s just get into the numbers, shall we?

This year, Marquette is turning the ball over on 21.2% of possessions. This currently ranks #226 in the country per Even with 27 teams not playing a game yet this year, that’s still bad. It is the worst turnover rate in the Steve Wojciechowski era, topping the 20.0% in his second season when he spent most of the year starting three freshmen. Unfortunately, this year the Golden Eagles have three seniors starting, one of whom is a redshirt senior in his fifth season, so it’s not like there’s a similar “oh they’re young” excuse here.

Here’s the year-by-year, along with KenPom rankings:

  • 2015: 19.3%, #189
  • 2016: 20.0, #292
  • 2017: 17.3%, #86
  • 2018: 17.3%, #99
  • 2019: 19.3%, #239
  • 2020: 18.8%, #176
  • 2021: 21.2%, #226

At their best, in 2017 and 2018, Marquette was passable at keeping track of the ball. In 2017, they turned it over 17.7% of the time in 18 Big East games, which ranked 4th in the league, which is fine. In 2018, they actually got cleaner with the ball, turning it over just 17.1% of the time, but that ranked 7th in the league, and thus was still a massive problem.

It’s not like Wojciechowski is completely unaware of this. In the past, when there were open practices to attend, you would see a manager popping a balloon every single time a turnover was committed on offense. We can have a conversation about whether or not that ever had any impact whatsoever on the teams — spoiler alert: it did not — but there was something being done to acknowledge that the coaching staff didn’t like to see the turnovers.

So here we are in 2021, and the problem is the worst it has ever been. Not in terms of rank, as you can see, but it’s the worst it’s been in terms of rate. To make matters worse, this is one of Wojciechowski’s slower paced teams, turning in a KenPom adjusted tempo of 69 possessions per game. They’ve played slower, but this is the slowest team that Wojciechowski has ever had at Marquette relative to the tempo of the rest of the country. He’s never had a team rank lower than #205 in tempo...... and this one is at #249.

They’re turning it over more than ever before while playing at the slowest relative pace they’ve ever played at. That’s a recipe for disaster. You turn it over 20% of the time in an 80 possession game, you’ve still got 64 good possessions to work with. 20% in a 70 possession game? You’re down to 56 trips down the court where you got a shot up, and now you’re just actively handcuffing yourself for no good reason.

To make matters worse, Marquette doesn’t give a damn at all about taking the ball away from their opponents. They are currently creating turnovers at a 14.8% clip. That is the lowest rate that Wojciechowski has ever supervised, beating out last year’s previous all-time low of 15.1%. Each year, the turnover rate on defense has dropped.

21% to 19.1% to 18.3% to 18.1% to 16.6% to 15.1% to this year’s 14.8%.

I’m left with no other conclusion that Wojciechowski is actively coaching his teams to stay at home, mind their P’s and Q’s, and never attempt anything resembling putting their hand in a passing lane. Marquette ranked #345 out of 353 teams in Division 1 last season in defensive turnover rate, and you don’t rank that low in that category unless you’re actively trying to rank there.

Let’s just say it all in one go, alright?

In his seventh season in charge of the men’s basketball program, Marquette is currently experiencing Steve Wojciechowski’s worst ever turnover rate on both ends of the court.

I found myself wondering why Marquette’s defense is clearly actively trying to not create turnovers on defense when the offense is so sloppy with the ball. It seems counter-intuitive, honestly. If you have a problem coughing the ball up too much, maybe you could balance it out by making your opponents have a problem coughing it up, too. Instead, the Golden Eagles are magnifying their problem to a certain extent by letting so many defensive possessions end in a shot.

What could possibly be the reason why a coaching staff would engage in this tactic? At a surface level, it looks totally insane and not logical.

So, I wondered if maybe Steve Wojciechowski is operating under the impression that turnovers do not matter relative to winning and losing. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

Thanks to the KenPom Game Plan page, I was easily able to look at every single game in the Steve Wojciechowski era at Marquette and figure out what Marquette’s win-loss record was when they won the turnover battle and when they lost the turnover battle. To be clear, I’m using turnover rate as the measure here, but given that KenPom measures the game at the same possession count for both teams, winning at turnover rate means you won in terms of raw turnovers, too.

Here’s what I found.

First, let me say that there have been 12 turnover ties in the past six-plus seasons. Marquette is 6-6 in those games, going 1-1 in every year except 2018 (1-2) and 2021 (1-0 so far). This is my way of advising you that the win-loss records you see below won’t line up perfectly to the final win-loss records of the year in question.

When Marquette turns the ball over less than their opponent under Steve Wojciechowski, when they win the turnover battle, they are 66-25. That’s a winning percentage of 72.5%.

By year, it looks like this:

  • 2015: 10-8
  • 2016: 9-5
  • 2017: 13-5
  • 2018: 15-4
  • 2019: 10-2
  • 2020: 8-1
  • 2021: 1-0

When Marquette turns the ball over more than their opponent, when they lose the turnover battle, they are 49-55. That’s a winning percentage of 47.1%.

Year by year:

  • 2015: 2-10
  • 2016: 10-7
  • 2017: 5-7
  • 2018: 5-8
  • 2019: 14-7
  • 2020: 9-11
  • 2021: 4-5

We are left with unrelenting evidence that Marquette is incredibly good when they’re turning it over less than their opponent. That’s not even “Marquette turns it over only a few times,” it’s less than the other team. Marquette could have a turnover rate of 25%, but if they can get the other team to 26% or higher, they win seven times out of 10! Even in Year One, when Marquette finished 13-19 overall and just 4-14 in league play, they still found a way to have a winning record when turning it over less than the other team! Not only is “turns it over less Marquette” cranking out wins at a nearly 73% clip, they’re winning way more than “turns it over more Marquette,” which is the really important issue here.

We have evidence that turning it over less than the other team and/or making the other team turn it over more than you has a notable effect on winning, at least for Marquette under Steve Wojciechowski. By completely de-emphasizing creating turnovers, there’s a trend towards turning it over more than the opponent on a regular basis just because MU’s defensive turnover rate stinks. That’s how you end up with 104 games of turning it over more than the other team against 91 games with fewer turnovers. By refusing to try to create turnovers on defense, things are trending towards being a coinflip as to whether or not Marquette wins a game. That’s not a good way to go through life, especially when you can see that the other thing is a much better option.

I know, “turning the ball over less than your opponent is good” isn’t a very deep insight into basketball. But I needed to see for myself exactly how lopsided this situation is for Steve Wojciechowski. I had to see for myself that there was evidence heavily against Steve Wojciechowski’s insistence on not generating turnovers on the defensive end. I don’t know what he can and can not do to fix the problem on the offensive end. The defensive end scheme is absolutely a conscious decision at this point, and it certainly looks like it’s actively harming Marquette’s ability to win basketball games. I don’t know why he’s leaning into a strategy that causes you to turn the ball over more than your opponent, because it seems like it should be as actively harmful to the team as it actually is for his teams.

But this is where we are, struggling to figure out why Steve Wojciechowski is doing a thing as he sits at 1-3 in league play after four games for the second straight season.