Marquette basketball has not been at a loss for storylines that permeate the national landscape. From their surprise surge to a top 10 team last year, to the eventual collapse, to the Hausers transferring*, to the constant flow of legendary Markus Howard performances, fans have been given a lot to talk about over the last year. It’s been a little hard to leaf through the pages and find some of the developments from supplementary players as a result, especially given the deserved ball dominance of Markus Howard.
* - Drink
Before this season started, I predicted that Brendan Bailey would be a First Team All Big East-caliber player. This, admittedly, was partially a result of me trying to be the first to declare him becoming an eventual star. Mostly it was because I was stupid high on him, given how he was was the only player on the team with a pulse at the end of last year, combined with his high school pedigree, genetic background, and raw skills.
The prediction started off poorly. Not to say that he played bad by any stretch, but he would disappear at times during non-conference play. Halves would go by where his role would be relegated to “stand in the corner.” For as much as fans would clamor for Sam Hauser to take charge on offense, he had eight total games where his usage rate (% of possessions that end in a player’s hands while they’re on the floor) was below 15% all of last year. Brendan had six of them in non-conference play alone, three of which were below Sam’s season low a year ago.
It was less understandable given Brendan’s skillset. The elder Hauser is an elite shooter, but is not the most creative offensive player. Bailey has shown in glimpses that he can take on all types of defenders one-on-one from the wing. Throw in a much more polished shooting stroke and it becomes maddening when he’s not able to realize his own worth on the court.
He also showed some issues on defense that followed a similar path. His lack of strength has made defending post ups a weak spot, but he shouldn’t be bodied up against centers much anyway. Where I specifically thought he could be special was his length/speed combination. He’s light enough on his feet to be more than capable of keeping up with smaller guards with Slenderman arms that can erase any missteps. That all remains true, but screens were a nightmare for the 22 year old sophomore. Hesitancy on which way to go and getting tied up once he was forced to commit gave drivers or rollers just enough time to scoot past him.
Alright I’ve fleshed out his early issues enough. Why am I back on the Bailey train and shoveling coal into the engine? His play since conference season started has been up there with Sacar Anim’s resurgence and Krunch Time Koby McEwen as the reason for Marquette’s rise to #18 in the AP poll.
The most obvious place to look is at his offense. After only two double digit point outputs in non-conference play (one of which was against Robert Morris, in which Markus Howard sat most of the game), he’s gifted the fanbase with four 14+ point games in the first 11 games of conference play. He’s done that by taking three times the amount of foul shots, using himself much more on the pick-and-pop play that Sam Hauser made his bread and butter, and becoming a tenacious offensive rebounder. All of this while being just as protective of the ball as he has been all along with a season long turnover rate in the top 140 in the country and #11 in league games only.
What’s most impressive is that these shots aren’t falling into his lap. I count four times in the last three games that he found himself behind the arc with a defender in his face in which he responded with a pump fake and drive to the basket instead of robotically passing it around. The mid-range game could maybe use some work but it’s an incredibly effective weapon that can make bigger defenders think twice when he’s coming in on those drives. The offensive rebounds are massive as well. Jayce Johnson deserves all the credit in the world for his absurd effort on the glass, but Bailey is right up there with him. In conference play, Bailey has failed to grab multiple offensive rebounds in a game a total of one time. Those are easy putbacks or kickouts that he’s creating all on his own.
What elevates this recent performance is the mental adversity he went through early on in 2020. If you remember the end of the home loss to Providence, Brendan had the chance to tie the game at the end of overtime with three free throws and missed the final one. For a kid struggling with assertiveness, I can not imagine taking that sort of crushing defeat and thinking that it’s time to show my fangs on offense. Bailey creating these opportunities for himself despite going through that nightmare scenario has been truly commendable.
The defense has shown improvement as well. While the same tools still apply, he isn’t quite as versatile as some fans have hoped, but his decisiveness is finally starting to click. The game against DePaul was a great example of this. The two-point defense on the whole was mostly a failure in that game, but Paul Reed was not a part of this barrage because Bailey was on him most of the game. Of the 14 points Reed scored that day, six came in front of Jamal Cain and two came in the middle of a zone look. The rest of his 6-for-13 shooting performance came with Brendan in his face where Reed was not given an inch. The Mormon Maniac (trademarked, don’t ask questions) matched his every step and used his absurd length to force two additional turnovers. The blocks are starting to appear as well, as he’s recorded at least one in seven of MU’s Big East games so far. He still isn’t completely polished at fighting through ball screens, but it’s clear that he’s fighting through them and not waiting for a decision to be forced on him.
I don’t know what head coach Steve Wojciechowski or any of the coaches said to get Brendan Bailey on the track that he’s on right now, but I want them to call me every morning and recite the exact same verbiage to start my day. I hesitate to definitively say that he’s destined for greatness due to this good stretch because I’d like to see how he responds when failure happens, but man is this encouraging right now. This offense needs supplementary scorers to make defenders pay for only basing their schemes on Markus Howard. Sacar Anim and Koby McEwen are very deserving of the recent praise they’ve received, but if Brendan has found Michael’s Secret Stuff, this team can make a ton of noise in March and we can be talking about the next All-American candidate once the doors shut on Howard’s career.