QUESTION #1 — What happens if Sarah Kushner’s transition to libero doesn’t work out?
Sarah Kushner has spent the last four seasons at Illinois State playing as an outside hitter. A multi-dimensional outside hitter that contributed a little bit all over the court, sure, but she was an outside hitter as her primary function.
Now she’s at Marquette as a grad transfer, and not only was she playing as the libero during MU’s trip to Eastern Europe in June, but she’s also the only player on the roster listed as a libero. I don’t know at what point in the transfer recruiting process that this positional transition came up, but heck if it doesn’t appear to be the plan all along. If that’s the case, then Kushner’s completely committed to playing her part as Marquette strives to hit historical heights in 2023.
But what if it doesn’t work?
What if Kushner’s instincts for the position just never quite click? What if she’s just a step behind where head coach Ryan Theis and the Golden Eagles need her to be to drop in and replace Carly Skrabak as the only rotational player missing from last season?
I think the answer to that question is simple: Samantha Naber starts wearing the alt color libero jersey and Marquette keeps things moving. The bigger question is how fast Theis and his staff are willing to pull the trigger and move off of this plan. In the first three matches of the season, Marquette plays 1) A team that went to the NCAA Second Round, 2) A team that won 30 games and went to the NIVC title game, and 3) a 20 game winner that MU has seen twice in the NCAA tournament over the past few years. Weekend #2 has a pair of NCAA Second Round teams. Weekend #3 is a team that lost to one of the Weekend #2 teams and a Final Four team.
AND THEN Marquette hosts Wisconsin at Fiserv Forum for what is already guaranteed to be the biggest crowd that the Golden Eagles have ever played in front of in program history. There’s not a lot of room for error here.
QUESTION #2 — Will Marquette win a third straight Big East regular season title, and can they win an outright title this year?
In 2021, Marquette went 16-2 in Big East play with both losses coming to Creighton. However, the Golden Eagles caught a break as the Bluejays lost two of their first seven league contests, falling on the road to St. John’s and Connecticut 15 days apart in October, and the two sides stayed deadlocked at two league losses each the rest of the way to end up in a tie for first place.
In 2022, Marquette went 17-1 in Big East play and needed to defeat Creighton in the final regular season match of the season in order to hand the Bluejays their first loss in league play and end up in a deadlock for the league title for the second straight season.
Can Marquette run the table against everyone in the Big East not named Creighton again this season? Based on the non-conference schedule that head coach Ryan Theis put together, it certainly looks like he’s got a lot of big expectations for his 2023 team. I don’t think “going 16-0 against nine of the 10 league opponents” qualifies as one of his three biggest goals for the year. But based on what Creighton looks like they’re going to be this season, not to mention what they’ve been for the last decade or so, Marquette’s going to have to pull 16 wins out of those 16 games if they want to be in contention for the title at the end.
At that point, it comes down to what Marquette does in their two matches against Creighton. This time around, MU gets the Bluejays at home on October 6th in the first meeting of the season. It’ll be the sixth match of league play for Marquette, and if they can win as they did in the regular season finale last year, it puts the Golden Eagles in the driver’s seat for the rest of the year. The return bout comes on November 5th, about one month later, as the 14th match of Big East play. If Marquette walks away from Omaha at 13-1? They’re probably winning a Big East title. They might need to walk away at 14-0 if they want to win an outright title, and if an outright title is a goal for this season, then 14-0 has to be the goal to make that happen.
QUESTION #3 — Can Marquette advance further in the NCAA tournament than they ever have before in program history?
Since 2011, Marquette has been to the NCAA tournament 11 times, qualifying each and every time that the NCAA held a full field of 64 tournament. Six times — 2011, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2019, and 2022 — Marquette has won their first round match. Twice — 2018 and 2022 — Marquette has won their second round match to advance to the Sweet 16.
Marquette has never won a Sweet 16 match. They lost 3-0 to Illinois in 2018 and 3-1 to Texas in 2022.
Both times that Marquette reached the Sweet 16, they did it by way of earning a national top 16 seed and earning the right to host the first two rounds of the tournament. Historically speaking, hosting those first two rounds is crucially important to any team advancing to the Sweet 16. The tournament is continued to play on campus sites for the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight as well, and as you could expect, the home court advantage tends to hold pretty strong sway on the outcomes there, too.
The hang up for Marquette in the Sweet 16 has been, to a certain extent, that they’ve been playing road games. They played at Illinois in 2018 and at Texas in 2022. The reason why is because Marquette was the national #14 seed in 2018 and #4 in their region — somewhere between #12 and #16 nationally — in 2022. In other words, Marquette was good, perhaps even great, in those two years, but they weren’t good enough to be the better seeded team in the third round of the tournament.
Can Marquette get to a Sweet 16 again this season, and if they can do that, can they win there for the first time ever? Maybe a more important question: Is Marquette built to be good enough to get to a Sweet 16.... and avoid playing the team that’s hosting the regional aka the top remaining seed in the region? Is Marquette built to be able to beat a top five team in the country anyway, because that’s what it’s going to take to beat that top seed if that’s what it comes to again.
Should I say it?
Yeah, let’s say it.
Is Marquette built to be a top five team and the top seed left standing in the region and thus end up hosting their Sweet 16 match for the first time in program history? The Golden Eagles spent 15 weeks in the top 25 last season, most of them somewhere in the teens, and they finished the season at #13 in the final poll after the tournament was over. If the non-conference season goes the way that I would imagine head coach Ryan Theis hopes it will go, I’d imagine that hosting the Sweet 16 isn’t exactly outside the realm of possibility for Marquette.