A Refreshing Finish

Looking at the hard-and-fast results, the 2017-18 Marquette Basketball season was a disappointment. After making the NCAA tournament the year before, and returning much of the team’s core, Marquette did not get back into the bracket. The regular season clunked to the finish, lowlighted by handing DePaul its first BIG EAST home win in ages. An NIT berth felt like small consolation and finished short of Madison Square Garden, despite Marquette hosting a lower-seeded team for the right to go.

Yet while that season ended Tuesday night with an 85-80 home loss to Penn State, something happened over the course of Marquette’s three NIT home games: The program found some new life.

Central to the cultural refresh was the decision to play games at the Al McGuire Center.

Forget basketball for a moment and think about dating. It’s one thing to meet a potential significant other in a familiar public place, like a favorite bar or restaurant. Going into that person’s apartment, if only for a few minutes, feels like advancing the relationship. That person is letting you into his or her home. For Marquette, the BMO Harris Bradley Center felt more like the restaurant. It was familiar and nice, but spacious, and a place that belonged more to the city and Bucks than MU. The Al, however, brought the games on campus, closer to students and a couple doors down from where the players practice daily. It’s fair to continue the analogy by equating The Al to the apartment.

The Bradley Center also invited a certain element with its abundance of lower-bowl sideline seats and luxury suites: The rich-enough, old-enough fan, who makes a big donation and sits close, but is also too business-like and disengaged to get loud and create an unwelcoming atmosphere for visiting teams. I have long bemoaned the culture of Marquette Basketball at the Bradley Center, with its empty seats in the lower bowl that don’t fill until 5-10 minutes after tip-off, countered by concourses with small huddles of middle-aged folks talking business or catching up on grandkids’ lives during halftime, leading to more empty seats through the start of the second half. Too often, Marquette games at the Bradley Center felt more like a mixer than a hostile environment for foes.

In 2014, Wisconsin played at the Bradley Center in the NCAA tournament. Different ticketing, sure, but their fans made way more noise than is heard at packed Marquette games, much less Marquette’s non-conference buy games. Those of us who with Marquette ties who bore witness to the Badger takeover were embarrassed. It highlighted just how sleepy Marquette games have often become.

This past week at The Al, though, reducing the capacity from almost 18,000 to 3,600, and making the tickets available in prioritized waves, meant only the most interested season-ticket holders and students got seats. Non-season-ticket holders never even got a chance at seats; by the Penn State game, some levels of the season-ticket holders didn’t, either. Those who went wanted to be there. The disengaged chaff was either kept out or relegated to the upper reaches of the building.

Plus, by having students on both ends and far closer to the floor and baskets than the Bradley Center, they made a huge impact in the Oregon and Penn State games. On the Marquette bench end, the usual student throng was full and loud. On the other, the timing of the games worked out such that Marquette’s men’s lacrosse team could fill the space behind the hoop, and as only those bros could do, they fully committed to “Free-Throw Distraction Theater.” While many of their gags were borrowed from other student sections, their over-the-top performances were as entertaining as the games.

With everyone so close, things gelled after a Harvard game spent feeling out the new environment. The energy for the Oregon game, once most students returned from break, was unlike anything felt for Marquette Basketball in the Steve Wojciechowski era, save maybe beating Villanova last year. As someone who does PA announcing at Alverno College’s Reiman Gymnasium, which has cinder-block walls ten feet from the floor on the three sides of the court that don’t have stands, I’ve said it before: A small crowd can make a big noise in a small building when the sound has nowhere to go. That was very much the case at The Al.

A lot of things started to make sense this past week. This is why college basketball can be so fun. This is why Duke and Wojo adore Cameron Indoor Stadium’s tight confines. This is how it should be. In gaining experience, Marquette created an experience, and the players fed off it. Andrew Rowsey, who looked downright disinterested in the DePaul loss, reveled in the crowd’s energy, taking a full lap of the floor after a play in the Oregon game to tell fans to keep the noise coming.

The momentum came to an end Tuesday, but it wasn’t necessarily because Marquette played poorly. Yes, defense was the team’s feet of clay this year, but Penn State’s stars were even draining well-defended shots. Marquette was good; Penn State was great. While Marquette gave wins to some opponents this year, Penn State can say it earned its way to New York.

Still, with a new, more-intimate arena on the way, it was hard to imagine a better transition for the program. It was a final chance for Rowsey to set an example for his teammates; a chance for Marquette fans to reawaken their passion for the team; and yes, a chance for the team itself to get two nice postseason wins before bowing out to a worthy foe.

So-called fans who may have checked out after Marquette didn’t make the big bracket probably still feel bitter. Understandable. There’s work to do, even for a program, as Wojo pointed out after the Penn State loss, with a bench that consisted of three freshmen and two regular players, Sam Hauser and Greg Elliott, who played with significant injuries. But the last week or so has shown what Marquette Basketball can be at its best. It’s why Wojo will keep getting a chance. It’s why fans will pay ever-higher prices to get into the new building. And it’s why we’ll keep watching.

New life for an old program, from an old tournament that supposedly doesn’t mean anything. That last part is wrong, though. The NIT meant a lot to Marquette this year; which is why, even after this frustrating season, the fans lucky enough to be at The Al were sad to see it end.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS: This concludes the Marquette Courtside broadcast day for this season. Please see this string of tweets I sent out after the Penn State game for my from-the-heart thanks to all of you readers and Marquette fans. I’m running out of space here, so I want to make sure to thank Jimmie Kaska for doing most of the technical legwork to get the blog posted this year, as well as all of the iHeart Milwaukee and Madison staff — Spenser Williams, Brian Posick, Jeff Miller, Tim Scott, Armen Saryan and others — and Marquette staff, who not only somehow saw fit to credential me, but even occasionally helped me spew my Marquette Basketball ramblings, both here and on Twitter.

Save any offseason special editions, and with all luck … we’ll talk again, in the fall, from the new building.

Photo: Getty Images

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