With the 2020-21 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 senior from Michigan who has already announced he’s going back to Michigan for his COVID bonus season........
Senior - #23 - Forward - 6’7” - 200 lbs. - Pontiac, Michigan
Jamal Cain Traditional Stats
Jamal Cain Fancy Stats
*** — notes a top 500 national ranking per KenPom.com
I think the logical pathway to a reasonable expectation for Cain this season is deciding how you feel about the rest of the Marquette lineup. I personally think that the #1, #4, and #5 spots in the starting lineup are spoken for. We’ll see if the coaches agree with the idea of slotting D.J. Carton, Dawson Garcia, and Theo John into those three spots in order, but you get the point here. Nothing about Jamal Cain’s first three years on campus says “will play the 2 for Steve Wojciechowski,” and the collection of guards in need of minutes probably eliminates him there, too.
So that leaves the 3 as the most likely source of minutes for Cain, and it’s also the position that best suits him. I don’t want to go so far as to say “Jamal Cain is going to start and play 30 minutes a night at the 3” as a reasonable expectation for him. That’s asking a little bit much from a guy who has played 30 minutes in a game a grand total of one time in his 93 game career. But the minutes are easily available, and if Cain can be successful at what the coaching staff needs from that position this year, then he can grab up all the minutes he possibly can.
Cain’s particular physical frame lends itself to the belief that he can make a notable contribution this year, no matter where he ends up in the rotation. He’s tall, he’s got length for days which helps make up for any deficiencies he might have, he’s strong enough to mix it up in the paint, he can hit triples like it’s going out of style, and I think we haven’t quite scratched the surface of what his athleticism can provide for Marquette. With the roster situation being what it is — lots of new faces, only 10 scholarship players available — I think we need to expect that Jamal Cain is an every night notable contributor for Marquette.
T-Rank says 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists while playing 54% of minutes. That would be career bests in every department, so sign me up for that.
Why You Should Get Excited
Two things should have kind of stuck out in that last section when you read it. The first was me indicating that Jamal Cain would work out well at the 3 this season and there’s lots of minutes available there. The second was noting that he has played 30 minutes in a game just once in his career with the Golden Eagles.
These things are connected.
Jamal Cain’s lone 30 minute performance in his college career came last season as the Golden Eagles visited Kansas State in Manhattan. Cain came off the bench to play 34 minutes in relief of Brendan Bailey who racked up three fouls in just six minutes, and he was great. Cain went 6-for-9 from the field, connecting on three of his four long range attempts, finishing with 17 points, more than any player on the court other than Markus Howard who only had 19.. He reeled in nine rebounds, three on the offensive end. He dished two assists. He hit both his free throws. KenPom.com declared him to be the MVP of the game.
And Marquette needed that performance from Cain. As mentioned, Bailey was lost in the high grass and relegated to the bench when Steve Wojciechowski realized what Cain was getting done. Koby McEwen fouled out in 18 minutes. MU needed 21 minutes from Greg Elliott and 16 from Symir Torrence just to put guys on the floor that were actually performing as needed to win the game. Cain’s outstanding showcase was very much required on that December night in Kansas, and he came through in a big big way.
In short, I believe fully in The Jamal Cain Experience. Give him extended minutes, let him get comfortable, let him get in the flow of the game, and let him show off what he can do. I’m not saying he’s going to be shooting 67% from the field every night, obviously, but it’s clear that the guy can contribute big minutes and Marquette may just need big minutes at the 3 this season. There isn’t an obvious candidate based on previous experience to get those minutes right now, and I think Jamal Cain is perfect for 25-30 minutes a night there.
In short: LET. JAMAL. COOK.
So, here’s the thing. My concern for Jamal Cain this season isn’t really concern for what Cain can do. My concern is that the coaching staff has shown a lack of interest in getting him the minutes that he perhaps deserves. Case in point: Cain tore it up against Kansas State, but when Big East play started less than a month later, Cain played less than 10 minutes in three of MU’s first six games. That’s not exactly rewarding a guy for a big performance in a big spot. This would eventually turn around as the season went on, and in what would turn out to be the final game of the 2019-20 season, Cain was one of the guys on the floor for Marquette when Wojciechowski benched half the team because they were stinking out the joint against St. John’s.
Good news: Cain was on the floor as Marquette made that crazy but ultimately futile comeback. Bad news: It took Wojciechowski realizing that the season was collapsing on him to turn things over to Cain. This has been a constant for the last two years. I think we can ignore any ups and downs from Cain’s freshman year because that’s freshman year stuff. But Cain was almost invisible as a sophomore and never got consistent time on the court after he basically won a game for MU all by himself as a junior. While I believe that Cain can give the Golden Eagles what they need, I’m convinced that the coaching staff doesn’t believe that or at the very least, they find ways to talk themselves into believing something else is the correct answer. Until we actually see Cain getting those big minutes and giving those big performances, that thought is going to loom in my head.
How’s this for prescient statements? “I don’t want to go so far as to say “Jamal Cain is going to start and play 30 minutes a night at the 3” as a reasonable expectation for him.” Straight out of the preview for Jamal Cain back in the fall. That’s nearly literally exactly what he did. In fact, he didn’t hit 30 minutes just eight times out of Marquette’s 27 games, and then nearly went over 30 enough times where he just barely missed out on exactly averaging that at 29.8 minutes per outing.
This is a long way around to saying the following: We finally got what we thought we could get from Jamal Cain in 2020-21. He was finally given regular playing time, in fact given starters’ minutes, and as a result, he showed himself to be, at worst, a perfectly competent starter in the Big East. If you’re getting (rounding off here) 10 points, six rebounds, and an assist night in and night out from your #4 scorer in this league, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. We can talk about why exactly that didn’t actually come together for Marquette if you want, but that’s definitely too much of a burden to lay on Cain’s shoulders. There was a spot available for him to shine this season, he was given the opportunity to maintain said spot, and then he performed perfectly well given said opportunity. Good for him!
The biggest key for Cain’s burst of productive minutes this season has to be attributed to his turnovers. Through his first three seasons at Marquette, he could not be counted on when it comes to ballhandling. Now, he was never going to be asked to be a primary ballhandler, sure, but you also can’t have a guy coming off your bench with a turnover rate north of 20% like Cain did for three seasons. We threw more than our fair share of criticisms at Steve Wojciechowski for suddenly cutting off Cain’s minutes going from his freshman year to his sophomore year, but the fact of the matter is that Cain’s turnover rate went from 24.4% as a freshman to a whopping 32.2% as a sophomore. If you prefer it in terms of turnovers per 40 minutes, that’s going from 2.5 to 3.3. Per 100 possessions? 3.6 to 4.7. That ain’t it, chief. Junior year dropped back to just over 20%, but that still wasn’t good enough to justify a boatload of minutes for him, which is why Cain was right about where he was as a freshman in terms of playing time.
But maybe all he needed all along was consistent playing time. This past season, when he was asked to play 30 minutes a night? A turnover rate of just 13.2%, which was actually one of the 400 lowest rates in the country per KenPom.com. That’s just 1.5 per 40 minutes and 2.2 per 100 possessions. Now, maybe Cain adjusted what he was doing. Maybe the coaching staff adjusted what they were asking from him when giving him that starting spot. Maybe there’s a lot of maybes that explain why his turnovers dropped. The point is that Marquette needed Cain to drop those turnover numbers because they needed him to play big minutes, and he did.
Oh, I think this one is an easy one. Given how the season ended, it’s easy to forget how things were going at the start of 2021. After knocking off two top 10 teams in December, Marquette then lost their next three games in various types of ways. They clunked out a loss at home to Seton Hall immediately after beating a #9 ranked Creighton team, got stung at the buzzer by Xavier on the road, and then got smacked in the head by Villanova. That dropped MU to 5-5 on the year, but there wasn’t a bad loss on the schedule yet, not by a wide margin, and the Golden Eagles still had the veneer of an NCAA tournament team.
Until they went out to D.C. and trailed 36-20 at the half against Georgetown and 38-20 with just over 19 minutes to play. That was not good under any circumstances, and fouls and an injury to Koby McEwen and D.J. Carton made things look pretty dire. Well, not to Jamal Cain. He ripped off a personal 8-2 run against Georgetown to pull the Golden Eagles within seven with less than eight minutes to go. And then Cain rained in a wide open three with 15 seconds left to put Marquette up 64-60.
In a game that was not going well for Marquette in general and for anyone in specific, the same could not be said for Jamal Cain. He finished with a game high 25 points after that late bucket on 10-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, along with six rebounds, a block, and a steal. For a moment in early January, it looked like Cain had provided the heroics to help bounce Marquette back in the direction of the NCAAs.
He shot right past the projections from T-Rank, he jumped right into the “play 30 minutes a night” fray with ease, and he looked like he was propping the team up from time to time. It was everything that we could have wanted from Jamal Cain over the past two seasons. Whatever you needed from him on a given night, he could give you. Whatever else was going on with Marquette this season, Jamal Cain was clearly not the problem. For me, this is a clear 9 on the ol’ 10 point grading scale, and I hope he tears it up at Oakland next year.