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Marquette’s Roster Is Clearly Far From Settled

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Shaka Smart announced three incoming prospects and two transfers.... and then kept right on recruiting in the transfer portal.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Shaka Smart doing a press conference or making his pitch to potential incoming transfers?
Ebony Cox / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Let’s start things out today with the ever popular Marquette men’s basketball scholarship chart because we have to get everyone on the same page before we continue.

That’s what the chart looked like after Olivier-Maxence Prosper committed to the Golden Eagles for next fall. About two hours after Prosper made his announcement, Marquette and head coach Shaka Smart put out a press release confirming the addition of Prosper along with fellow transfer Tyler Kolek and incoming freshmen Emarion Ellis, Keeyan Itejere, and David Joplin. The very bottom of the press release notes that these five young men join Kam Jones and Stevie Mitchell in the group of newcomers headed to Milwaukee for the 2021-22 school year.

That was on the morning of April 15th. At that time, that gave Marquette seven newcomers to the program that were confirmed by Smart after he took over the program. It also gave Marquette seven returning players that got on the court for the Golden Eagles in 2020-21 and an eighth returning scholarship player that did not see any action. Seven plus seven equals 14, and an extra one for former walk-on Tommy Gardiner equals 15 potential scholarship players for next year.

The NCAA scholarship limit for men’s basketball is 13.

Sure, Dawson Garcia is in the NBA Draft pool, so maybe that solves for one spot, and maybe Gardiner’s season ending knee injury is enough to the point where he does not return to the team. That would get Marquette to 13. But those are, for now, only maybes, not for sure things. Garcia did not hire an agent and his own announcement said he would return to school if the NBA scouts say that’s what is best for him.

The point of the story is that as of MU’s press release on the 15th, there were still questions to be answered as to how Marquette was going to get to only 13 players on scholarship by the time the fall semester started.

And then Smart kept recruiting.

On the night of the 15th, we got word about a new transfer hearing from Marquette. Okay, well, maybe that’s just late reporting getting out and he had heard from MU several days earlier. Not newsworthy at the time.

And then we got another one on the 20th.

And then we got another one on the 22nd.

Shaka Smart and his assistants are still working on their first roster..... even though there is not, at this time, any space on the roster for any other players because there’s already not enough space for the guys that they do have.

I’m not even saying this is a bad thing. If Smart knows what’s actually going on and we don’t, then fine. But the transfer portal isn’t exactly a secret, and if someone — or multiple someones — are going to be leaving the program to make space for someone else to come in.... well, you’d like to think that they would be in the transfer portal already. After all, there is a certain amount of timing to all of this. At some point, there just aren’t any more spaces for anyone else to go anywhere, and never has that been more true in a year where 2020-21 seniors can transfer for their COVID bonus years while counting towards the scholarship maximum at their new home.

I’m all for players doing the best thing for themselves, and I’m all for coaches doing the best thing for their roster. But sometimes those things have to work together, and right now, Shaka Smart appears to know that he needs more players even though no one has officially left the team yet. That’s not the best way for things to work. Hopefully it all works out for everyone, and hopefully that happens soon.

With that said, let’s move on to the three gentlemen that Marquette is still interested in since making the press release announcement.

Ty Groce

Groce spent the past four seasons at Eastern Michigan. The 6’8”, 215 pound forward started here and there while playing in all but one of EMU’s games in his first two seasons on campus. As a junior, Groce was elevated to full-time starter status and kept that job for the next two seasons. He performed well for head coach Rob Murphy, averaging 12.8 points while leading the team in scoring the past two seasons, along with 5.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game in his last 50 collegiate games.

The Michigan native seems to be the kind of player that takes advantage of what the game gives him as opposed to being a guy that the Eagles relied on heavily. KenPom.com doesn’t show his usage as particularly high, but remember that he did lead the team in scoring. His efficiency jumped through the roof as a senior, going from sub-100 in each of his first three seasons to 115.5 and ranking #218 in the country. Part of — all of? — his jump in efficiency was due to the fact that Groce just stopped turning the ball over. He had two years with a turnover rate north of 24% and a junior season of 19.5%.... and then 12.0% this past season.

Groce rebounded the ball decently well on both ends but especially on defense where he ranked #323 in rate. He made other impacts on defense as well, ranking in the top 450 in block rate in each of the past three seasons per KenPom, and in the top 200 in steal rate as a sophomore and junior.

There are major questions to be asked about his shooting. In his first three collegiate seasons, Groce shot 2.3 three-pointers per game and only made 25% of them. Senior year? 2.6 per game with a 34% return rate. That’ll work just fine.... as long as it’s real. After all, Groce started the 2020-21 season shooting 27% on 11 attempts before finishing the year on a 36% hot streak on 36 attempts in nine games. That’s a very small sample size to call it proof of concept.

Kur Kuath

The South Sudanese big man spent the past three years at Oklahoma after starting his collegiate career at Salt Lake Community College in Utah. A back injury short circuited his first season in Norman after just six games, but he bounced back to play in all but one of the Sooners’ games over the past two years. Kuath was a starter for Lon Kruger at the beginning of the 2020-21 season, but shifted to a bench role after 15 games and his minutes went all over the place after that.

Kuath’s stats are not going to bowl you over. As a junior, he averaged 3.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 10.6 minutes per game. As a senior, he added 5.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game in 17.1 minutes of action. When he was starting for OU at the beginning of the year, he averaged nearly 20 minutes per game and chipped in 6.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks.

At 6’10” and 220 pounds, Kuath fits a role that next year’s Marquette roster needs: Rim Protector. He ranked #28 in the country in block rate last season per KenPom.com while only playing in 42% of Oklahoma’s minutes. For comparison purposes: Theo John ranked #97. I don’t think Smart would want to rely on Dawson Garcia as a rim protector if the Minnesotan returns to Marquette, and MU’s other options are undersized (Justin Lewis) or inexperienced (Oso Ighodaro) or both (Olivier-Maxence Prosper and Keeyan Itejere).

In addition to the shot blocking, Kuath showed himself to be a great offensive rebounder this past season, ranking #206 per KenPom in rate on that end. He also didn’t turn the ball over that much, just barely missing the top 300 in turnover rate. Of course, with a nearly non-existent assist rate, I suspect a lot of “didn’t turn it over” was “dunked it a whole bunch soon after catching it.” Ain’t nothing wrong with that, y’all.

DeVante Jones

We should start right off here by pointing out that Jones has entered his name into the NBA Draft. He’s an underclassman, having just finished his junior year of action, so Jones is on the same “he has until July to withdraw” timetable as Dawson Garcia. Keep that in mind as we go through this.

With that said, Jones is the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year after averaging 19.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 2.8 steals per game for Coastal Carolina. The 6’1”, 200 pound New Orleans native has been a starter for head coach Cliff Ellis nearly the entire time that he was in Conway, South Carolina, with only early season injuries in his redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons derailing that. He’s been pretty much the same guy, statistically speaking, his whole time at CCU and has led the team in scoring each of the past two years.

If you were looking for red flags, there are some because no one is perfect. As you might expect from a guy who was leading his team in scoring, Jones had a decently high usage at Coastal the past two seasons, although it actually went down a little bit from sophomore to junior year. He also had a turnover problem his first two years of action that he solved this past season. Quite honestly, going from 22% turnover rate to 16% turnover rate probably explains a little bit of his usage going down because turning the ball over counts as usage of the possession. Anyway, the point I’m making here is that I don’t know if “high usage mid-major guard who withdrew from the NBA Draft” is the best fit on a Marquette roster that, theoretically, has both D.J. Carton and Dawson Garcia on it, particularly in a new head coach’s first season, and especially with the volume of guards that are expected to be on the roster as well.

We also have to talk about Jones’ shooting ability in the red flag department. He’s clearly able to do a lot at the rim, shooting nearly 56% on two-point buckets in his three collegiate seasons. His three-point shooting is a bit of a mess, though. For his career, Jones is connecting on just 33.4% of his long range attempts which is functionally fine. He’s right at that spot where your three-point shooting ability is effectively like shooting 50% on twos. However, Jones had to shoot 37% on threes this past season to get there. He hit 34% of his attempts in 2018-19 and a very not good 29.6% of his 125 three-point attempts as a sophomore. That’s unreliable at best and actively damaging to the team at worst. Now, it’s entirely possible that if you staple Jones into a roster where he doesn’t have to be The Guy that he starts getting better looks at the rim and that shooting percentage stays in that 37% range, which is great.

I’m intrigued by Shaka Smart going after a guy who ranked #18 in the country per KenPom.com in steal rate this past season. Jones has been top 400 in that department at least the two seasons previous, so he clearly has shown an aptitude for this. If you’ve been paying attention, then you know that Smart abandoned his Havoc defensive style when he moved from VCU to Texas. Still, an interest in a guy who can clearly create transition opportunities at an incredibly high rate may indicate that the desire to win with defense at Marquette is high in Smart’s mind.