Marquette’s Straight-Line Path

posted by Dan Pfeiffer -

Marquette did exactly what it should have done this past week: Demolished Mount St. Mary’s, 80-59, and fell to #19 Purdue in the Gavitt Tipoff Games, 86-71.

Mount St. Mary’s had no business being on the court with Marquette and was dispatched quickly. Purdue, meanwhile, has a beast on its roster in the form of Isaac Haas, a 7-2, 290-pound senior who is wide, strong, smooth and very difficult for normal human beings to defend. I remarked both that he was “the size of an aircraft carrier” and “[made] Matt Heldt [look] like a shooting guard.” Marquette had no answer, nor will most teams. It was still a loss, but considering Marquette largely hung around until its big men started fouling out, it’s difficult for anyone to be too critical of Marquette’s effort Tuesday night. This was not the Iowa Gavitt Games blowout a couple years ago.

After the Lindenwood exhibition gave fans nervous moments, Steve Wojciechowski and crew quickly put it behind them and had a solid week. In comparison to the last two years, this alone was a relief.

College basketball is a game played by young men just entering adulthood, meaning there will be emotions and variability. That said, consistently meeting expectations, and occasionally exceeding them, is success defined. It’s the wild swings between over- and underperforming that get maddening. When you know a team is capable of great things, yet bad things happen, you get frustrated.

This is our fourth year watching Wojciechowski-led Marquette teams, and as each progressive season unfolds, we have a little more revealed to us about what kind of team Wojo wants. Wojciechowski seemed fairly content after the Purdue loss. I don’t blame him. He did say young big men like Matt Heldt and Theo John have work to do to become veteran on-court leaders like Purdue’s, as well as to build a team identity and culture of consistency. But we knew that, and Marquette hasn’t veered from the path to get there. Wojo loves to talk about “maturity.” We get a better idea what that means each passing game. I think maturity and consistency can almost be seen as interchangeable terms.

There’s so much familiarity in the BIG EAST, and the season becomes such a grind, that there’s some understandable variability within conference play. But in the non-conference season, building that culture — putting teams away early, exploiting positive mismatches, doing things right, all of it — can not only set a team on the right foot, but can help it fight through later challenges.

While Marquette has had nights the last two years where it’s pulled off huge wins, it’s also put forth some clunkers, and others where they’ve played like champions one half, then let leads slip later. The team’s motto is “Win Every Day.” It implies a consistency that hasn’t always been there on a number of levels. Through two games this year, however, the performance has been what folks should want it to be, and the team looks more comfortable in its shoes. After a year of cobbling together the cupboard remnants from Buzz Williams, and another seemingly devoted to the professional hopes of Henry Ellenson, this is the second year there’s a solid core of Andrew Rowsey, Markus Howard and Haanif Cheatham. Despite the team still having an air of youth, things have started to settle in.

Granted, Marquette will be put through the ringer again next week in the Maui Invitational. If MU can get past VCU on Monday, a matchup with sixth-ranked Wichita State looms on the gorgeous Maui horizon. To me, returning to the mainland with a pair of wins in three games will feel like a success. That’s the expectation, though it may also depend on how the other games fall.

First things first, though: Beat VCU. That’s what’s expected. We all should be content if Marquette continues to meet expectations.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

BOOK ‘EM, DAN-O: The Maui Invitational is sponsored by the Maui Jim sunglasses. However, I always thought it should be the facility, the Lahaina Civic Center, with the sponsor. Having a Maui Jim Maui Gym just seems right. I’m not alone.

GETTING THEO-RETICAL: A lot of folks might look at the Purdue game and believe Marquette will have trouble matching up against big men. Let’s not go that far. First, we’ve seen Heldt be better; he had an off night. Secondly, John has work to do to refine his game defensively, as should be expected with a raw freshman. Thirdly, as outlined earlier, Purdue doesn’t have big men, they have huge men. I need to see struggles against a lesser opponent to believe Marquette will be sub-average down low.

One thing that surprised me, however, was Wojciechowski saying his focus initially against Purdue was taking away their three-point shooting ability. Even the Purdue guys made a point after the game to say they were surprised Haas wasn’t double-teamed sooner, though he passed out of double-teams perfectly fine when they came. Odd approach from MU, but I’m pretty sure Purdue would have beaten Marquette one way or another.

THE THING ABOUT THE THING: The fine folks at Marquette Nation have assembled a must-read story about how when Rowsey draws fouls on three-pointers, it’s become known on social media as “doing The Thing.” Throw future Dan Pfeifer fan club president Eric Gebhardt a bone and give it a read.

STRUCTURED THINKING: With the first part of the new arena complex open in the form of the 5th Street Structure, I’ve now parked there for each of the first two Marquette games. It’s spacious, clean, and slightly less expensive than the structure right next to the BMO Harris Bradley Center for now. Maybe it’s just the nature of covering a team, but I’ve also found it quite empty when I’ve arrived and left. Anyhow, consider it a very viable alternative to whatever your current parking plans are for games.

ADVENTURES IN QUESTION-ASKING, PURDUE EDITION: Working for a radio station and asking questions at press conferences is a challenge. The goal is to get the interviewee to say things for soundbytes and updates. The challenge, however, is to get him to say obvious things that don’t need a lot of context to understand. Case in point, Wojciechowski after Purdue. I wanted him to discuss Howard looking healthy and playing well. So I told him exactly that: Howard looked healthy and scored, then asked if that’s something Marquette need going forward, hoping he would expound. He came back with, essentially, “Yeah, exactly what you said,” which didn’t help me soundbyte-wise. It’s not as easy as it looks, folks, and we all mess it up sometimes. At least egg cleans easily off my face.

NO VACATION: As much as I’d like to either be in Hawai’i for the Maui Invitational, or even watch the games live here in Milwaukee, Marquette could end up playing all three of its games during the workday, and I’m not in a position to be taking time off from my day job at the moment. As such, enjoy the contests if you’re lucky enough to be able to watch them more intently than me. I will be DVR’ing the games and following up with a post-Thanksgiving blog Friday.

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