Praise Be To Wojo

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

I’m not necessarily a history aficionado, but I have an appreciation for it. One of my favorite phrases is “if you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going.”

I took time recently to look back at some of last year’s Marquette Courtside blogs, particularly from the end of the season. Last year was … something. It was a topsy-turvy final month to say the least. Subtract the enormous upset of Villanova and I don’t think Marquette was tournament-worthy. As much promise as MU showed, it still followed that victory with four losses in five mostly-winnable games.

Court-storming and a return to March Madness aside, last year was too often an exercise in potential regularly unmet. The big thing the team lacked was consistency. Their level of play was vastly different from one game to the next, or even one half to the next if you look at a blown 18-point lead against Butler on Jan. 16. A loss at St. John’s prompted me to write a scathing blog, saying Marquette played “garbage defense and sloppy offense” in getting outplayed and outworked by the Red Storm. It bordered on painful to see Marquette continually, collectively, come up short against lesser teams than ones it would beat.

Things seem quite different this year. Through the non-conference schedule and five BIG EAST games, Marquette is meeting expectations at worst and, at best, playing eye-openingly good basketball. Their most regrettable loss of five was to Georgia, but one off-day in the framework of a larger season is forgivable. Other defeats have come against Wichita State, Purdue, Xavier and Villanova, all highly ranked foes. The rest of Marquette’s slate hasn’t featured a hiccup. Its toughest win came against Eastern Illinois, but was just hours removed from Haanif Cheatham’s transfer news. The next most-difficult victory was at Providence, but Marquette gutted it out, riding Markus Howard’s aflame hands to record-breaking heights.

While MU has won close games, they’ve also put teams away. They took a shaken Wisconsin team and pretty much RKO’d it on enemy turf in December. Tuesday, if you didn’t know whether Marquette or Seton Hall entered as the ranked team, you would have thought it was MU the way it played. The No. 13 Pirates took an 86-64 shellacking and couldn’t compete with Marquette’s best effort of the season.

When one guy’s been struggling, another’s stepped up, like Andrew Rowsey when Howard scored below his average against both Georgetown and Seton Hall. Youngsters like Jamal Cain, Theo John and Greg Elliott are showing remarkable improvement. While defense has been a weakness, the Seton Hall win may have been a turning point, as Marquette stifled the Pirates’ best efforts to force the ball to Angel Delgado down low. Marquette’s come a long way, showing an impressive amount of growth between last February and now.

When the team was inconsistent, we looked to Steve Wojciechowski as to why. But with Marquette having found a justified confidence and swagger, we shouldn’t neglect to bring up Wojo again.

Prior to this year, Wojciechowski had doubters. The mid to late 2010’s are an era of little patience, and it took three years for Wojciechowski’s team to reach this buzzworthy state. When single moments in past seasons were put under a microscope, some criticism was deserved. But for those who accepted Wojo’s first few teams sometimes making mistakes and learning the hard way, this year represents the beginning — beginning — of the payoff.

Marquette is thrilling when it plays games like Tuesday’s. It shoots lights out and goes on electrifying runs. We’re seeing the talent, and it’s all Wojo’s now. While you lose Rowsey next year, and will be at risk of losing Howard to the draft at some point, pieces like Joey Hauser are on the way. Plus, it’s clear Wojciechowski allows players like Rowsey just enough leash to “be themselves,” but not so much that they aren’t above suspensions or benchings when they struggle, either on or off the court. It’s the kind of player-management model that’s perfect for top recruits. It also creates the right atmosphere for a team to beat some of the country’s best.

If we’re going to criticize, we also need to give praise, and Wojciechowski deserves a lot of it for what we’ve seen this year. It’s only January, too early to start sending in ballots for BIG EAST Coach of the Year. But only five games into conference play, you have to think he’s at the top of most people’s lists. If Marquette can finish conference play in the top half of the conference or ranked, I’d imagine others will share my thinking.

The quality play, however, has to continue. Tuesday was great, but it’s history now and means nothing if Marquette replays last year’s clunker against Butler Friday instead putting itself in position to crack the top 25. Consistency equals maturity, and Wojciechowski talks about maturity incessantly. If that consistency can be achieved, as it has over the last few weeks, the program is headed to great places.

Wojciechowski took responsibility when Marquette struggled. It’s now our responsibility to give him credit with it succeeding.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

X’D OUT: Villanova took Xavier to the woodshed in a battle of the BIG EAST’s two highest-ranked teams last night, 89-65. On the one hand, Villanova is rolling right now, having toppled Marquette Saturday, 100-90. On the other, that’s consecutive losses for Xavier, who also fell to Providence over the weekend, 81-72. Villanova can be had on the right night, as Butler proved at Hinkle Fieldhouse earlier this season, but not when you score 65 points like Xavier did, and not unless anyone starts finding answers for Jalen Brunson, who would be a national player of the year candidate if it wasn’t for the ESPN hype machine deciding Trae Young will be its chosen one for the time being. Villanova got back to the top seed in this week’s AP poll and will remain the target for the rest of the BIG EAST until further notice.

OUR COACHES COULD BEAT YOUR COACHES: Tuesday’s St. John’s vs. Georgetown game showcased a coaching matchup between former Dream Teamers Chris Mullen and Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas won, 69-66, but more interesting is the reminder that you could assemble a darn fine squad from the BIG EAST’s head coaches, assuming you took them at their prime: Wojciechowski at the point, Mullen on the wing, Ewing down low, plus LaVall Jordan, a two-time all-conference player at Butler, and Xavier coach/alum Chris Mack, one-time Cincinnati prep player of the year, for good measure. Note that I say “in their prime,” though. While Wojo is known to still feed his competitive fire during spirited staff games, let’s just say Ewing no longer appears to be in playing shape.

COMING UP: We mentioned the Butler game at Hinkle, which will tip Friday at 5:30 p.m. CST. Monday night, Marquette also plays a DePaul team that has been better than previous years, if still only threatening moreso for being taken too lightly than actually being tough. That game starts at 8 p.m.

Photo: Getty Images

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