With the 2019-20 season long since in the books, let’s take a few moments to look back at the performance of each member of YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles this year. While we’re at it, we’ll also take a look back at our player previews and see how our preseason prognostications stack up with how things actually played out. We’ll run through the roster in order of total minutes played going from lowest to highest, which means today we move on to the lanky junior forward that was looking to bounce back from a rough sophomore season......
Junior - #23 - Forward - 6’7” - 200 pounds - Pontiac, Michigan
Jamal Cain Traditional Stats
Jamal Cain Fancy Stats
*** - denotes a top 500 national ranking per KenPom.com
Look, there’s a reason “sophomore slump” is in the popular vernacular. It seems to be a common occurrence. And yikes, did Jamal suffer from it. But we’ve seen him play much better than last season suggests. And one would think that having that extra motivation, knowing that his number will be called on a regular basis to play good minutes at the 3 and 4, would be a motivator to make sure that last season gets put firmly outside of his mind.
Marquette needs Jamal to rediscover his stroke from the corner three that he had his freshman. If he can find that, I like to think that he has a regular place in the rotation. He looked shaky on the ball for any extended time, but I like the idea of playing him off of one or two dribbles going towards the rim from, say, the short corner. He also flashed a pretty-looking midrange jumper. I believe in his ability to get open off the ball, and I think that he can easily contribute 5-7 points a night on a combination of corner threes, jumpers off of screens, one or two power dribbles into finishes around the rim and a stray putback here and there. Plus, his athleticism and speed screams for him to be a finisher in transition. If this team can play a bit faster and create more in the open court off of opponent turnovers, I think he will thrive.
He isn’t an elite defender, but his combo of strength, size, speed, and lankiness can be relied on to cause problems for opponents. He’s a better rebounder than the numbers suggest and works to make sure his man isn’t getting an offensive board. I think he has all of the ability to be a better than average defender and rebounder and be a key piece late in the season off of the bench.
Why You Should Get Excited
Well, he’s a whacky ridiculous athlete. I don’t recommend saying this kind of thing about a guy who couldn’t figure out how to get on the floor for a team that spent most of last season ranked in the top 25, buuuuuuuuuut:
In addition to that, Cain fits the prototype Wojo seems to love in the lanky, floor stretching, athletic wing/combo forward. He shot 47% from 3 as a freshman. He’s quick, and if he’s added any sort of confidence in ballhandling/pick and roll/isolation and finishing at the rim, there are very few defenders in the Big East that can stop him. He will out jump you, out hustle you, out-length you (it’s a thing, trust me, don’t look it up), and (assuming the above is true) outscore you. As I’ve said above, he is so much better than last year suggests, and he’s flashed abilities such as the pull up jumper and good rebounding instinct that can be turned into extra Marquette possession or points. If he can rediscover his stealing ability, he will again provide Marquette with more possessions, whether in the halfcourt or in transition. At his best, he’s a Big East starter (or at least pushing both Brendan and Sacar) night in and night out, and is a lethal spot up shooter that can chip in 10-12 points a night, 4 rebounds a night, and at least one highlight dunk per contest, just for kicks.
I mean, last year did happen. Even though he should be doing his best to drive it from memory, it is what it is. Furthermore, it seems that Bailey has supplanted Jamal’s place as the preferred starter at the 4, while Sacar Anim seems to be the starter at the 3.
If Jamal struggles, it may be hard for him to break into the rotation. While he’s technically the only other true “wing” player outside of Brendan and Sacar, Greg Elliott is lanky enough and a good enough defender to spell Sacar at the 3 (Dexter Akanno may be as well), and Wojo has dabbled with the idea of using Ed Morrow/Theo John at the 4 for some minutes with the addition of Jayce Johnson as a big man. If Jamal can’t beat the slump of last year, and if any one of Greg, Dexter, Ed, or Theo solidify a rotation spot, it may be hard for Jamal to find floor time. This has to be the year he does it, too, as the two Marquette commits so far for the next class are tough combo forwards who can handle the ball and shoot the jumper. Jamal needs to not fall down the pecking order this year. But if the shots don’t fall and the turnovers keep coming, that may be exactly what happens.
Before getting to anything about the actual product that the junior wing put out, I need to mention that Jamal Cain is the best jumper I’ve seen in college basketball. It’s a weird statement to make, but the thing I enjoyed the most about this Marquette team besides literally everything about Markus Howard is watching Jamal effortlessly launch into the air for a rebound. It’s a combination of the raw ability and how perfectly he times rebounds that sparks awe. He constantly gets head and shoulders above the centers he’s competing against. Zion Williamson comes to mind as a competitor. Also Ben McLemore. Maybe Michael Qualls? Those guys could all jump high, but there’s something about the way Cain soars that separates him to me.
If you can think back to Cain’s freshman year, you might immediately remember the performance he had against future #1 seed Xavier. In that game he scored 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting and had fans salivating at the idea of him being a weapon in the corner. For the rest of the year we saw glimpses of what he could become as a backup to Sam Hauser, but ultimately he wasn’t a highly touted freshman and was fighting for backup minutes with Greg Elliott, who was having a much better season at the time. The consistent opportunities could hopefully come his sophomore year.
Yeahhhhhhh, that didn’t pan out. Cain gave “sophomore slump” a whole new meaning. It was a miracle if we saw him take two clean dribbles and I could’ve sworn he was wearing stilts on defense. With additional wing contributors in Joey Hauser and Brendan Bailey immediately ready to battle for minutes, Jamal didn’t have much of a shot at a redemption arc in 2018-19. From the start of conference play on, he registered double digits minutes only three times and barely registered a blip when he was in.
That brings us to 2019-20, where he was still looking at a bench role, but the departure of the Hauser Brothers* meant that a bigger piece of the pie was available to the junior if he could handle it. He still needed to pry time away from Brendan Bailey, who many smart people predicted potential stardom out of last year. There was never a chance at Cain becoming the second scorer that Markus Howard desperately needed, which is a larger problem, but he certainly wouldn’t hurt the team as a decent wing off the bench.
For the better part of non-conference play, Cain played just that part, with his minutes increasing in importance as the season went along. His usage in the offense was middling and he still played less than half the team minutes, but he was efficient in those minutes. He wound up with some sneaky excellent shooting numbers for the whole year. Going 38% from deep after hitting 6 of 22 threes in all of 2019 was a massive improvement to go along with a much steadier finishing ability at the rim. Cain parlayed his role as a corner shooter perfectly into an ability to effectively drive on the baseline. His handles were so much improved in addition and it led to almost 100 combined shots inside the arc and at the free throw line, the most in his young career. Most importantly, he posted his lowest turnover rate in his collegiate career so far, coughing it up 20.6% of the time. That’s still above the national average, but it’s a far cry from the 32.2% rate that he posted during his sophomore year.
Although these improvements had existed throughout the whole year, it wasn’t until the latter portion of conference play that there was fan chatter about Cain deserving the lion’s share of minutes over Bailey. The starting rotation had as much energy as a Coldplay song and the defense was atrocious as a result. More than anything the team needed life, but this wasn’t fans screaming about something needing to change just because. What Jamal Cain provided coming off the bench was legitimate energy, which gave the team at least a little bit of zest down the stretch.
Speaking from the perspective as someone who prefers to think of basketball with an analytical mindset, it’s easy to get caught up in the merits of defensive schemes and how well a player fits in them physically. From that point of view, Brendan Bailey is the better Marquette defender because he has a little more length, strength and coordination. What Cain reminded me of this year is how it’s not enough for a player to be able to go from point A to point B. There’s a lot to be said about the confidence and determination in which a player does that, and Jamal is an example of that. I’m still not sure how good of a defender he actually is, but he damn well tried to be a better one while the team was in the midst of another late season slump. That matters.
If you don’t believe me, here are the on-off numbers for Cain, courtesy of hoop-explorer.com, one of the hidden gems in the college basketball world.
These are staggering numbers on both ends of the floor. They work out similarly when garbage time and sub-250 competition is filtered. Opportunities at the rim were being denied and rejected at absurd rates when he’s in and the team was actually average at forcing turnovers.
Head coach Steve Wojciechowski kept his lineups pretty stable throughout the year, so these minutes were mostly being played with Jayce Johnson, Greg Elliott and Symir Torrence on the floor. There was an undeniable chemistry between those guys that should’ve been played out more when it was clear the team needed sparks. Regardless, the rising senior has put himself in a fantastic postion to make a case for a starting spot over Brendan Bailey next year.
So his best game was on the road against Kansas State. The Wildcats’ strategy for that game was to extend their defense on Markus Howard to mid court. Bruce Weber has implemented an aggressive defensive style in the past and this game was a mere two weeks after Mark Turgeon smothered Howard with a similar strategy, so it made a lot of sense. The one weakness of this is how wide open the wings could get on the baseline. When Brendan Bailey was sidelined early with foul trouble, Jamal was called to play 34 minutes in Manhattan. He answered the call to make K-State pay. That extra space gave him room to drive and shoot. He made an absolute killing on the baseline, scoring 17 points on 9 shots, 2 of which came on a ferocious putback dunk.
Season Grade, On A Scale Of 1-10:
Ultimately, we should be pleased with how Cain performed in the role that he was given. It would be unreasonable of us to think that a backup wing is to blame for the team’s lack of secondary scoring options, but he still has a long way to go from the spark plug he is now to the reliable consistency that he’ll need to be if he wants starter’s minutes next year. I’ll give him a 6/10 for that.