As you’ve probably heard by now, Marquette men’s basketball picked up a win over #10 Illinois on Monday night. The win moved the Golden Eagles to 3-0 on the season and gives new MU head coach Shaka Smart his first victory over a ranked team.
All of this is very good. All Marquette fans should be very excited and pleased by all of this.
I am here to tell you that you should not be changing your opinion on how this Marquette basketball season is going to go as a result of this one game, even if it is a surprise upset of a top 10 ranked opponent.
This is not to tell you that you shouldn’t be optimistic about how Shaka Smart’s tenure is going to go. That’s fair, and probably very justified right now. I’m talking about pure real fact and math based concepts and ideas that tell us maybe, just maybe, Marquette is still the team full of question marks that we thought they were before the season began. If they’re still that team, then there’s no reason to change what you thought about the ultimate destination, right?
#1 — That wasn’t really a #10 ranked Illinois team.
Let’s be honest about it: Illinois was ranked #11 in the preseason poll because they have Kofi Cockburn on the roster. The 7-foot tall big man from Jamaica averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season and whatever success the Fighting Illini have this season, it’s going to be because of Cockburn.
You’ll notice, of course, that Cockburn did not play last night. He was serving the final game of a three game suspension handed down by the NCAA on Monday night. Is it safe to say that things could have gone very differently had Cockburn been on the floor? Absolutely. Spin yourself over to T-Rank and play with the RosterCast feature. Take Kofi Cockburn off that Illinois roster, and suddenly the Illini are #25 in the country according to the analytics instead of #4 like they were to start the season. Clearly still a good basketball team, but not a great national-title-contender-type basketball team.
It’s still a positive accomplishment for Marquette, to be clear, and one that’s going to pay off for the Big East in general, but it’s not exactly the win that it looks like at a glance.
#2 — Marquette has barely moved in KenPom’s ratings.
The Golden Eagles started the year out at #86 in the analytics website’s ratings. After MU’s first two games of the season — and we will get to those in a second — Marquette had fallen to #95 in the country heading into the Illinois game. As of the conclusion of all of Tuesday’s games, the Golden Eagles are back up to #88. That’s actually a little bit down from the preseason projection, just barely, but it does mean that through three games, the Golden Eagles are actually a little bit worse than expected. Yes, they beat a team that they weren’t favored to beat…. but that didn’t suddenly propel Marquette into the top 50.
#3 - Marquette didn’t play very well against Illinois.
The Golden Eagles shot 29.4% from beyond the three-point line against the Illini. That’s bad. Everyone not named Darryl Morsell shot 2-for-13, which is just 15%. That’s really bad. Marquette got killed on the offensive glass by Illinois, as the #2 offensive rebounding rate team in the country coming in tuned up the Golden Eagles for an absolutely bonkers 45% of their missed shots. Marquette shot an absolutely terrible 58% from the free throw line in this game, and everyone not named Justin Lewis shot a disastrous 11-for-23, or just 48%.
In short, there was a reason why Marquette was down 12 at one point in that game. They won because Illinois decided to commit turnovers on 34% of their possessions, something that Marquette can absolutely not sustain for a whole season. Last year’s defensive turnover rate champion was Abilene Christian, who forced turnovers on 26.5% of possessions. Even going north of 30% is essentially impossible, and that’s the kind of thing that Marquette needed to figure out how to beat Illinois.
In short, they did it once, and they’re not likely to get that lucky again.
#4 — Marquette wasn’t playing well before Monday night.
Show of hands: Who out there really thought the team that beat New Hampshire by five was going to beat Illinois with that kind of performance?
Taking into account all Division 1 games played through the close of business on Tuesday, Marquette ranks #198 in the country in effective field goal percentage, #241 in offensive rebounding rate, and #271 in three-point shooting percentage according to KenPom.com. Over on the defensive side of the ball, Marquette is letting opponents get to too many offensive rebounds (ranking #282 in the country), they’re sending them to the free throw line too much (#226), and the other guys are raining in hellfire from long range (#235).
These are all major flaws right now. Maybe after another 10 games they get fixed. Maybe this is just a bit of Small Sample Size Theater. Or maybe Marquette is still the same team we thought they were at the start of the season and they have notable flaws that limits their upside this season.
#5 - This one win didn’t change anything in terms of projections.
I think it’s safe to say that even the most optimistic Marquette fan would have said before the season “If the Golden Eagles make the NCAA tournament in 2022, it’s a major win for Shaka Smart.” While Marquette currently has a win in their back pocket that’s going to look really good come Selection Sunday, it’s only one win.
I mentioned the idea of this article to our friends over at Paint Touches, and Andrei was .... well, not happy, that’s not the right word, but willing to shake the ol’ T-Rank software to see what it said about Marquette going forward this year.
This is the 10 best possible comparisons that T-Rank can come up with if you simulate out the most likely outcomes for the rest of Marquette’s season.
You will notice that every single one of the best possible comparisons to Marquette missed the NCAA tournament at the end of the season. This goes back to the “Marquette is not playing very well” thing from earlier. Teams that have the statistical profile of the Golden Eagles so far this season struggle. In particular, look at the NET column and the WAB column. That’s a projection of T-Rank’s estimation of MU’s NET ranking and the estimation of T-Rank’s specialized Wins Above Bracket ranking at the end of the year. #126 and #89 are not putting the Golden Eagles anywhere near an at-large bid.
Let’s turn our attention to another T-Rank chart. This one takes Marquette’s efficiency numbers so far and measures them against historical comparisons.
Of the 10 teams since at least 2008 that played most similar to the statistical profile that MU is putting out right now, one of them — 2011 Memphis — made the NCAA tournament. That was Josh Pastner’s second Tigers team after John Calipari took the Kentucky job, and Memphis had to win the Conference USA tournament to get a #12 seed. UAB was the regular season champion in the league that year, finishing two games ahead of Memphis, and they got an at-large berth, also with a #12 seed.
In other words, the only team in the last decade-plus to play like Marquette has played so far had to win their conference tournament to have a sno-cone’s chance in hell of making the NCAA tournament.
Last thing on this bit. When the KenPom preseason rankings were released, we noted that the Golden Eagles were projected to go 13-16 overall and 8-12 in the Big East. Today, Wednesday morning? 14-15, 8-12 in the Big East.
To drive this final point home: Marquette starts play in the Charleston Classic on Thursday night. Marquette is not favored to win that game against Ole Miss. Game #2 on Friday will be against either West Virginia or Elon. Marquette will not be favored to beat the Mountaineers, who are currently #48 in KenPom. Game #3? Of the four possible opponents on the other side of the bracket, Marquette would only be favored against one of them — KenPom #109 Temple — on a neutral court like we’ll see in Charleston.
If you want to be optimistic about Shaka Smart’s long term tenure right now, please do that. There’s absolutely a reason to think he’s already got Marquette basketball on the right track. The fact that they figured out a way to beat Illinois proves that much at least, and that’s worth celebrating.
But changing your entire outlook on this season, on the next 28 games, because of an ugly, scrappy victory? Not yet. One degree more optimistic? Maybe. Full blown optimism? No.
I can’t be the only one who thought, back in October, that Marquette is going to win some games that they shouldn’t and lose some games that they shouldn’t this year. Monday night was a game that they shouldn’t have won, and for multiple reasons. That coin is going to land with the other side face-up at some point this season. There’s nothing wrong with that, not this year. If you expected it to happen in October, nothing about Monday should change that.
Now, if Marquette is 6-0 come Monday morning........
Well. We’ll talk about that if that happens.