Strus’ Shot Shows Sports’ Instability

The only reason Marquette isn’t making plans for the National Invitation Tournament right now is an undershot ball by DePaul’s Max Strus.

Less than 20 seconds of game time before the aforementioned miss, Strus hit an insane three-pointer, despite being well-guarded, falling toward the corner and at a nearly 45-degree angle to the floor. With that shot, Strus brought DePaul within one of Marquette, 70-69, with 21 seconds left in last night’s BIG EAST Tournament first-round game.

Marquette followed with something it’s had too often — a late-game turnover in an unbearably crucial moment. Markus Howard mishandled an inbound pass, which then bounded loosely toward Andrew Rowsey, who also couldn’t get a grip. In trying to dribble the ball, rather than just falling on it and recognizing the necessity of simply maintaining possession, particularly with the possession arrow favoring MU, Rowsey allowed Brandon Cyrus to grab the ball for the Blue Demons, who called timeout and had a chance to draw up a play to end Marquette’s season, at least in terms of a faint hope for a nothing-short-of-miraculous national title run.

DePaul came out composed and ran its offense to perfection. Marquette couldn’t say the same, at all, defensively. Somehow, some way, Strus ended up 50 times as open as he was for the three that put DePaul within a bucket. Howard was the closest defender and sprinted toward Strus to try and disrupt him as soon as the Blue Demon got his hands on the ball. Only one problem: Howard was near the baseline, while Strus was beyond the arc on the wing, which speaks to just how wide open he was.

If Strus hits that shot, Marquette fans go apoplectic. It’s the first time MU has lost twice to DePaul in the same year since 1990-91, not to mention losing to the last-place team in the BIG EAST twice in two weeks. Already dim NCAA hopes are dashed. The #FireWojo hashtag flies with reckless abandon on Twitter, along with enough four-letter words to necessitate the Church of the Jesu’s priests serving double shifts in confession.

Instead, Strus misfires and Marquette lucks out.

Marquette played little to no part in its season continuing. Sure, you can point to the fact that they at least had the lead at that point. In college basketball, you can also theoretically point to any small event over the course of the previous 39 minutes and say that was the difference, too. But, ultimately, it came down to Strus’ shot. It falls, Marquette almost surely loses. It doesn’t, as it didn’t, and MU lives on.

The final seconds spoke to how sports in general sometimes feel mismeasured. A win like that for Marquette is a far cry spiritually from, say, the one where it disassembled DePaul at the BMO Harris Bradley Center earlier this season. Yet they both stand as the same ‘W’. For as much as we use advanced analytics to measure life in the new millennium, at the end of the day, a fraction of an inch on an opponent’s shot becomes the different between one of two binary, diametrically opposite, results. To calculate a game’s worth as pass/fail in an age when we can track players’ movements to the inch feels somehow lacking. A game like last night’s makes me think about what I consider to be sports’ biggest flaw: Unflinchingly equating wins to success and losses to failure.

I’ve seen thousands of games in my lifetime and worked with a lot of coaches. Somewhere along the line, I realized that one of the things I liked least about one of the least favorite coaches I worked for — one I’ve written about in this blog before — is that he was always overjoyed and happy after wins and intransigently mad following losses. It bothered me, especially as someone on the sideline with little control over the result myself. I’ve seen teams play great games, well beyond their potential, leaving every ounce of sweat and effort on the floor, only to lose. I’ve also seen teams play terribly and win. I can’t be blind to a team’s performance and simply look at the left-hand column. It’s not my nature. Maybe it’s the world we live in nowadays. Too many folks move too fast to look at anything but the final result. I’m not that way, either. I’m too analytical for that.

Granted, Marquette can produce a result tonight that will feel somewhat contradictory to last night’s, even though it will be a win just the same, if it can knock off Villanova. It’s exceedingly easy to say it will take a far better effort, including finding a way to stop Jalen Brunson. But it’s also easy to picture this streaky shooting Marquette team getting hot enough to just outscore the Wildcats, as it did at the Bradley Center last year, and winning on the whimsy of the basketball gods.

Folks are saying a Marquette win over Villanova will get them into the NCAA tournament. They point to two wins over Seton Hall and Creighton, which, if paired with a victory over the Wildcats, will give MU enough of a “resume.” This despite seeing Marquette fumble away a game against Providence on its most important day for the university; one loss to DePaul and another near-miss that was basically DePaul’s failure moreso than Marquette’s win; the Purdue, Georgia, St. John’s, and Butler losses that were all due to far larger causes than a single call or missed shot, and other missteps. Yes, you’re supposed to take the average of the good and the bad. But when there’s as much of a standard deviation between the two as extremes as Marquette presents, again, the inconsistency and unreliability of any given result makes the great successes feel too often negated by the failures seen.  

It’s the same way I don’t like how playoffs sometimes reward the hottest team, not the overall best, as the eventual title-winner. It’s the same way I prefer to associate with the self-made man than “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple” guy. I do believe in the quantitative. But wins don’t always feel like a good measure of performance. Even with Marquette surviving and advancing quantitatively, qualitatively, they’re still coming off as an inconsistent team that depends on shots falling and, occasionally, a key opponent miss at the end of the game. Qualitatively, that doesn’t sound like the mature, game-controlling team Steve Wojciechowski keeps telling us he’s trying to create.

Quantitatively, Marquette won last night. Quantitatively, there still was a lot missing.


NORTH-SOUTH RELATIONS: Thanks to Patrick Sperry and the guys at Lazy Blue Demon for not being lazy about crediting me for a graphic I created for a Marquette Courtside blog two years ago. DePaul will not be a bottom feeder next year; when they’re worth reading about, do so at Lazy Blue Demon.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: Marquette/Villanova, tonight at 6 p.m. CST. Large standard deviations lead to unpredictable results. As usual, we have no clue what will happen.

Video: Marquette Golden Eagles

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