The Matt Heldt Marquette Path
A winding road to Tuesday night’s success
I have said before in Marquette Courtside, and will say again, tracking recruits isn’t my thing. Too many highly-touted players end up being just so-so, and too many kids who come out of nowhere to do great things. Also, I don’t have time for it. It’s difficult enough to get to watch Marquette games sometimes, even as a beat guy, much less track what so-and-so and his three stars did in an AAU game in Wichita.
If anything, the one kid whose high school career I was largely aware of has now proven to me why one shouldn’t mix prep watching with college expectations. That kid is Matt Heldt.
In the first year and a half The Big 920 was all-sports, Wisconsin Badgers’ basketball was still on some other station. WOKY brass wanted live, local play-by-play, though, and I was willing to spend two nights a week at gyms around Milwaukee providing the call of high school contests. By the 2014 WIAA State Tournament, we had carried enough games that it made sense to add one of the Division 1 semifinals and the championship game to the package. Even though we didn’t air the first semifinal, I watched as Heldt and Neenah single-handedly torched a solid Mukwonago team, led by the ill-fated Dom Cizauskas.
I attended Brookfield Central when Devin Harris was tearing it up for Wauwatosa East. I also called some games with a guy who is now one of the nation’s best sharpshooters, Vanderbilt’s Riley LaChance, and, on a different set of airwaves, described a few thunderous J.P. Tokoto dunks. Heldt’s 10-for-13, 27-point performance against Mukwonago, in which he got nine of Neenah’s 31 team rebounds and needed just 24 minutes of floor time to do it, was as masterful an individual game as anything I ever saw at that level. Neenah’s 58-41 win didn’t feel nearly as close as the score, since the Rockets started the game on a 14-4 run where Heldt scored nine of Neenah’s 14 points. Oh by the way, at that point, Heldt was just a high school junior who appeared totally unfazed by the biggest of stages. He seemed to be playing an entirely different game than the other nine guys on the floor.
Even with Heldt being largely held down by a dynastic Germantown team in the final, he had established a high ceiling. I was excited for what he could bring to Marquette when he was announced as one of Steve Wojciechowski’s first signings.
Seeing Heldt as a Marquette freshman, however — when we did see him — took the thrill away. Witnessing his first few times playing college ball was like watching a completely different player. He struggled to field passes cleanly that he received smoothly in high school. He looked lost on defense. He didn’t appear ready. There was a thought at the start of last year that Heldt could provide quality relief for both Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer. Instead, when Heldt was on the floor, it seemed only to be because Marquette was out of options.
I will wholly admit I was disappointed by Heldt as a freshman. Here’s a guy I was talking up based on a game I felt privileged to witness, and he ended up looking like nothing more than an occasional minute-eater, two years after being a man among boys as a high school junior. I expected to see him at least be a little more up to speed. Instead, he was clunky and awkward.
I held onto that feeling into this year. After the IUPUI game this season, I attempted to ask Wojciechowski about Heldt “struggling,” considering Matt played just 12 minutes and only scored two points before fouling out. Wojo didn’t seem to want to have any of such questions, to the point where I referenced the exchange here in Courtside. It became a bit of a running joke among Marquette’s assembled press corps, as they’d start goading me to ask Wojo a Heldt question in the hope they’d get to laugh when he smacked me down again.
There came a point, though, when things began to change, both for Heldt and my perception of him. While Wojo and Heldt each said they thought the turning point was this past Saturday’s Xavier game, I go back to the road DePaul win. Fischer’s inconsistency over the last two years has been another sore subject. We saw how good he can be immediately after he was first eligible to play, but he’s also had too many BIG EAST games where he’s been largely M.I.A. It was at the Allstate Arena when I first became convinced Heldt is a better defender than Fischer, even with Luke recording seven blocks that day. When Fischer goes through a rough patch, he doesn’t move on defense. His struggle to defend pick-and-rolls is documented, but even down low, big men can simply work around him. Heldt, however, gets into good positions, takes charges and has a defensive aggressiveness we’ve seen grow with his confidence. Against DePaul, I began believing Heldt was the guy you wanted on the floor when you wanted defense, but Fischer was still the better offensive option.
Fast forward, then, to this past Saturday’s National Marquette Day win over Xavier. Heldt rightly earned a spot in the starting lineup and, after arguably goading RaShid Gaston into a technical foul that unraveled the Musketeers, has been a rebounding machine ever since. Against St. John’s, Heldt busted out for his first double-double with 15 points and 10 boards. He also became a reluctant folk hero, with fans not only chanting “MVP” for him but grumbling the next-to-last time he was subbed for Fischer.
There’s still room for growth. Heldt can hit putbacks and make the right cut to get easy baskets, but I still want to see him beat BIG EAST defenders one-on-one before I wholly believe in his offensive game. But the want to fight past adversity and work hard to overcome struggles is clear. Like most Marquette fans, it’s impossible not to believe in Heldt at the moment.
There’s one thing that sticks in my mind, though: Would I have thought so little of Heldt’s freshman play if I hadn’t seen that dominant performance against Mukwonago? Or would I just have seen him as another guy off the bench? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s best for me to keep tuning out that level.
That aside, if Heldt remains as steady as he has been, he’ll be just fine, and I’ll feel silly for having ever doubted him. I’d be OK with that.
BUBBLICIOUS: A lot of national attention was focused on Marquette, and whether or not they’re tournament-worthy, after the Xavier win. Particularly notable was Sports Illustrated’s Brian Hamilton providing the second-best reason to check SI.com this week (here’s the first). Hamilton notably said Marquette “confounds … metrics and the naked eye alike” in terms of its inconsistency. It was a relief to see a national guy come in from a distance and say that, meaning it’s not just those of us who follow the day-to-day who have noticed the ups and downs — and there have been plenty of those.
A BIG GAME IN THE LITTLEST STATE: Huge road game for Marquette against Providence this Saturday. It starts at 3 p.m. Central. Marquette also has Xavier again in Cincinnati, Wednesday at 8 p.m. on FS1.
DAG NAB IT: Ever have about 17 things to say and only room for, like, two? That’s the case with this week’s Splinters. An E-mail to students about fan behavior, what Heldt’s success tells us about the best player for Wojo’s system and more all end up on the cutting room floor. Maybe we’ll discuss next week.