An Empty Feeling

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

The soon-to-be-silenced horn at the BMO Harris Bradley Center sounded a long blast, signaling FS1 was due for a commercial break. Butler led Marquette, 73-49, though the 24-point advantage had actually shrunk from a high-water mark of 30 following an 8-0, 16-4 or 21-6 Bulldogs run, depending when you start counting.

With 7:58 in game time left, the media timeout was ideal for many fans to seek an exit, already kept late by an 8 p.m. CST start and a 15 minute delay in case the Providence/Seton Hall game ran long (it actually wrapped up early). Granted, some left before Butler’s lead got to a score and a half, assuming you’re measuring a score not in basketball terms but as used in the Gettysburg Address. No matter the counting method, the result of the game wasn’t in doubt.

As those fans tried to leave, though, an awkward scenario arose: During lengthy timeouts, Marquette Athletics Marketing schedules fun activities to keep fans amused. This is done under the assumption patrons don’t usually leave games with 10 minutes left. Scheduled at this particular moment? A popular promotion in which parachutes fall from the Bradley Center ceiling with T-shirts attached. Being 5 feet 6 inches tall on a good day, I’ve never personally been a fan, as most other adults are able to snare such shirts out of the sky well above my outstretched hands. I’ve previously lobbied the marketing folks I know from my soccer and lacrosse PA announcer duties for an alternative, like releasing ferrets in the stands with T-shirts on their backs, giving those of us closer to the ground a better chance. I’m usually able to eventually win my PA jobs back after proving I’m not truly insane.

The parachute drop is reserved for games where a good crowd is expected, and there was a decent, if not spectacular, crowd at the start last night. By the time the ‘chutes unfurled, though, large sections of the stands had emptied, and the aisles contained people heading out. The visual created by the release summed up the night adequately: In some cases, those trying to leave collided with others with eyes trained toward the fluttering apparel. In others, T-shirts floated not into extended fingertips but into a large patch of empty seats. The Marquette Nation Twitter got some video. Their description is spot on. 

In a Marquette Courtside a couple weeks ago lauding Steve Wojciechowski, which I encouraged fans not to read last night, I noted that, when published, Marquette had finally seemed to normalize its results this season after three years of unpredictability. I credited Wojo for doing so, and I didn’t feel much had changed until last night. Marquette entered yesterday’s eventual 92-72 defeat on the heels of consecutive losses to No. 8 Xavier and No. 1 Villanova, but losing to two of the top teams in the country, and falling to the best team in the nation by just three points, wasn’t any more alarming than any previous result. I expected Marquette to play Butler far better than it did last night, though. Yes, Marquette lost the first meeting between the two teams, 94-83 at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Jan. 12. But “Hinkle Magic” is a thing, and even Villanova couldn’t overcome it earlier this year. Butler, historically, hasn’t been quite the same away from Indianapolis. After two losses, I anticipated Marquette thirsting for a win. Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey seemed due for to both click, while Harry Froling played much better after a promotion into the starting lineup against the Wildcats. The tracks were laid for the MU improvement train to keep chugging along. That didn’t happen.

Rowsey was held scoreless for the first time since last year’s Butler visit. The Bulldogs made three shots for every two they missed. Top Butler scorer Tyler Wideman took nine shots and only missed one. Butler’s 60 percent shooting goes up to 68 percent if you remove Kelan Martin’s 5-for-14 night, as, perhaps, Marquette focused on at least slowing Martin down following his 37 points in the first matchup. If that was the case, it was definitely at the expense of defending everyone else.

While a loss last night seemed plausible coming in, getting dominated felt like the biggest gut punch of the season, surpassing Haanif Cheatham’s transfer and the loss to Georgia. It was bad enough to cast doubt, for many, upon hopes for the rest of the season.

I don’t like evaluating a team on one game, and this was the largest anomaly of a season that hasn’t had many thus far. But something is becoming clear: Marquette’s not as athletic as the top teams in the BIG EAST. In one first half play last night, Kamar Baldwin made Rowsey look silly on a baseline drive. Rowsey went to Baldwin’s right as Baldwin went left, at which point it was clear Rowsey was incapable of catching up. While fans may think Marquette isn’t getting calls lately, that’s partly because Xavier, Villanova and Butler are faster and more physical, which means Marquette is getting caught out of position and drawing fouls as a result. While Froling’s entry into the starting lineup is supposedly because of hard work in practice, it may also be because Matt Heldt still looks overmatched against BIG EAST’s big men while Theo John struggles to finish around the rim and gets caught in awkward spots, if only because he’s still a learning freshman. Yes, Marquette can outshoot its problems when it’s hitting. But when it’s not, there aren’t many other options, particularly against teams that can just blow by them to the basket or overpower them around the hoop.

Marquette is limited, and it shows against teams that are less so. There’s still work to be done to make the roster more complete and competitive.

Still, with the Villanova/Xavier/Butler part of the schedule done, most remaining games look winnable. Go on a February run and you’ll win back fans after the bruises caused by any parachute-initiated collisions heal. With confidence, maybe you beat better teams in March. Or maybe Marquette struggles against Providence Saturday and the season begins to feel like it’s slipping away.

As I said after last night’s game, I’m not ready to be concerned by this loss. It’s the first time Marquette’s truly surprised me this season. But I will be concerned if the team doesn’t respond. Saturday just became, perhaps, the most telling game in the Wojciechowski era. Hold on tight.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

WHEN WOJO ISN’T WOJO: If you read between the lines of Wojciechowski’s press conference after the Villanova loss, you can tell he wasn’t happy with the officiating in that game. Good news: Marquette did get to the free throw line as often as Butler last night. Bad news: Just about everything else.

To Wojo’s credit, despite taking a long time to come visit us, he did speak in full to the media last night and took full responsibility for the loss. “We played like a JV team,” he said. He’s right.

NATIONAL MARQUETTE DAY: The Providence game falls on Marquette’s self-declared holiday and starts at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. After that, Marquette travels to visit Seton Hall Wednesday.

Photo: Dan Pfeifer

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