Greetings from the pleasant island of … the living room couch. No Maui for me, thanks. I’m out of vacation time for the year.
Nonetheless, after a healthy dose of DVR’d basketball and some Thanksgiving dinner, I envy those who were able to get to the Lahaina Civic Center and the Maui Invitational. While no, Marquette didn’t win a championship, they did exactly what was asked of them in this blog last week: Beat VCU, won two games and finished third.
Ultimately, it could have only been some Sam Hauser and Markus Howard foul trouble against Wichita State that kept Marquette’s trip to Maui from being a title-winning one (though whether or not an early-season tournament is banner-worthy is up for debate). Hauser looked out of rhythm in the second half against the Shockers after spending the majority of the first half on the bench, then started out the first half against LSU in the third-place game like a Hawaiian hut on fire. LSU gave Marquette a run in a contest that was accurately described by ESPN’s halftime show crew as “like an AAU game” in terms of the good shooting and poor defense, but Marquette played like the better team against both the Tigers and VCU, and the results matched the performance.
When you consider that the first- and second-place teams came in ranked 13th and sixth in the nation, third is a darn good finish and the mark of a pretty good team, especially when you consider many of the other teams, while not ranked, will still be in tournament contention.
Even with that, Maui felt like an even better performance than the result for Marquette. The VCU game was a complete effort. Marquette was the more-active team against both the Rams and LSU. The half-court offense, with staggered triple screens against VCU and work to get Matt Heldt open for easy buckets against the Tigers, has taken steps forward. It’s freeing up Hauser, Howard and Andrew Rowsey for shots they’re hitting en masse when they’re all on the floor and in rhythm. While the defense is still a talking point, Wichita State and LSU will get their points against everyone, particularly when the Tigers’ Tremont Waters is going off for 39 and doing this.
Granted, we’ve seen this before. Steve Wojciechowski doesn’t allow his teams to fatigue, which has been conducive to success for Marquette in early season tournaments. In the overall dismal year that started in 2014, Marquette still won two of three games in the Orlando Classic. In 2015, Marquette won the Legends Classic as Wojo famously stripped the team of its practice gear and other accoutrements when they technically started the tournament with a BMO Harris Bradley Center loss to Belmont. Also, VCU had a travel disadvantage getting to Hawai’i, with delays costing them one of the two practices every other team had, and most of LSU’s player not named Waters seemed more rooted to the ground than some of the Koa trees outside when attempting to play defense.
However, regardless of opponent play, it was the sharpness Marquette showed throughout the Invitational that impressed me. It speaks to some of what we talked about last week in terms of having another year together and being able to see situations, anticipate and make the right pass when the half-court offense is working — noticeably, against LSU, the turnovers seemed to come moreso getting into the offense than within it.
We’re starting to see the scenario for Marquette to be better than anticipated. If just one of Hauser, Rowsey or Howard gets hot, Marquette is tough, much less all three. Haanif Cheatham has settled into a role as a secondary option, but one you could see him stepping up and having a big game or two to be a difference-maker. Sacar Anim has used increased playing time to steadily improve. Matt Heldt is the weak link right now, but Harry Froling will give Marquette even more depth in the middle when he becomes eligible. Theo John, described as a “puppy dog” in terms of having talent but still being very raw, is coming along.
Marquette has three great offensive options, a fourth pretty good one and help on the way down low. It has the ability to run and score in transition, hit threes from offensive sets and work hard enough to both get open and get second and third chances offensively. Oh, and most of the guys who handle the ball a lot do not miss free throws.
For the moment, it’s coming together. Teams that want to beat Marquette will have to shoot like LSU and play defense like Wichita State. The challenge is to keep it up. But if Marquette does, look out.
THE WOJO WE WANT TO KNOW-KNOW: The 10 minutes of ESPN2’s VCU game coverage that began with Jay Bilas’ “94 Feet with Steve Wojciechowski” may have been my favorite sports television of the year, keeping in mind how bad the Packers have been. First off, someone please, please, please tell Wojo to show that side of his personality more often. Wearing sunglasses and a big, bright smile as he walked down the beach, Wojo was relaxed, funny and open, even if only for a minute or two. I have made no bones that, warts and all, in my lifetime, my favorite local college coach has been Bruce Pearl. He wasn’t afraid to show some personality and have fun. This is all supposed to be fun. Show you’re OK with having fun. Secondly, Marquette playing some of its best basketball of the Wojo era after that segment didn’t hurt, either.
Then, during the VCU win, Bilas made a point to say Wojo, “has a great sense of humor.” Having covered his team for four years, I can say I’ve seen it … never. Maybe when he joined us to start asking questions of Howard during a press conference last year. That was it.
It’s OK to be human, sir. Show us. The fans will love it.
Now granted, Wisconsin’s losses have come against ranked teams, and concern over the Badgers’ slipping might be a bit exaggerated. But questions about whether or not their NCAA tournament streak is at risk have been raised. On Dec. 9, Marquette’s going to head to the Kohl Center and, if it plays as well as it did in Maui, will make a case that it’s taken back over as the best team in the state for the time being. Wisconsin is investing a lot in the young men surrounding Ethan Happ. Whether or not they can turn into the kind of stars that have carried Wisconsin over the last couple decades is yet to be seen.
Nothing is decided until the two teams play. But Marquette fans might want to do some chest muscle workouts the next couple weeks. You don’t want to strain anything when you start puffing it out.
BACK ON THE MAINLAND: Eastern Illinois and Chicago State are up next. Marquette will be fine if it can avoid any lapses of concentration.
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