The Unifying Factor

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

There was a wrinkle in the script for last weekend’s action in The Basketball Tournament’s BIG EAST Pod: Hall In, a team of mostly Seton Hall alumni, pulled an upset, at least according to the seeds, knocking off Jack Attack, a team representing Georgetown’s grads. However, things went mostly according to plan, including the final result. Marquette’s Golden Eagles Alumni team was the one to emerge from the pod, knocking off both Hall In and The Johnnies, a team loosely representing St. John’s, to reach their third-straight “Super 16.”

It wasn’t necessarily easy at first. The Johnnies put up a good fight in the opening round, despite playing the same five guys the whole game. It took Jamil Wilson getting red hot and his opposition finally running out of steam for the Golden Eagles Alumni to finally pull away. Then, with the team having had a game to gel, beating Hall In proved a somewhat easier task.

Nonetheless, what was most interesting to me was how the Golden Eagles Alumni team was able to span three decidedly different eras of Marquette Basketball. Consider the coaching staffs represented and their styles of play:

  • Tom Crean: Crean’s best teams were guard-dominated, be it Travis Diener and some guy named Dwyane Wade or a trio of guys named Wes Matthews, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal. While that Wade guy made a big impact, some will point out Crean’s best year, 2002-03, also featured one of his best big men, Robert Jackson. Big men were often just kinda there under Crean, in the sense that it was their job to defend, get rebounds and post up, but it never felt like any of them were a primary option compared to the shooters and slashers on the wings. Knowing such a lineup would be smaller, Crean also emphasized a defensive style where getting in passing lanes and anticipating opponent decision-making was key. Word/Phase of the Era: “Deflections.”
  • Buzz Williams: Williams’ style was a departure from Crean’s in that he wanted to run offenses where work inside set up shots outside. All of a sudden, bigger guys with names like Jimmy Butler, Lazar Hayward and Jae Crowder became more part of the picture. While Marquette wasn’t entirely forward-dependent, Dwight Buycks and Darius Johnson-Odom generally had better complementary options down low than their predecessors under Crean. Even some of the guards, like Vander Blue, used more size and inside ability to get the job done. The following sentence exemplified Williams’ approach to such an extent, it’s still the title of a well-known Marquette fan blog. Word/Phrase of the Era: “Paint Touches.”
  • Steve Wojciechowski: One could plausibly say it’s too early to pin down Wojo’s style because he’s had to overhaul his roster three of his first four years. The first-year’s team barely had enough players, and the second year’s team seemed to merely facilitate Henry Ellenson’s NBA hopes. However, I think the last couple years have told us much about what Wojo wants Marquette to do: Play modern, trendy, Golden State-style basketball, centered around a lot of three-pointers. That shows up in the kind of shots Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey took last year, in addition to how little usage guys like Matt Heldt and Theo John got around the hoop. I have a feeling Wojo wants to up the tempo, though he wants to see his players do so smartly. I get the sense Wojo hasn’t gotten the roster he wants yet. He wants guys who make right decisions, at speed, so he can focus on strategy. His teams haven’t been sharp enough to do that yet, but they’re getting closer. Word/Phrase of the Era: “Maturity.”

The Wojo era was only represented on the Golden Eagles Alumni team by one player, Derrick Wilson, but with Wojo, his staff and the current players working with the alumni in the lead-up to the games, it’s fair to say the influence was there. While most of the Alumni played under Williams, it’s fair to say all three coaches had a presence.

That said, it was interesting who led the team both games. Saturday, it was Jamil Wilson, who had a decent senior year in Buzz’s lackluster 2013-14 swan song, but was always in the shadow of guys like Blue and Davante Gardner on the better teams that preceded that year. Jamil took a couple threes a game at Marquette, but seemed to find his stroke much better in what’s now known as the NBA G League. He showcased what he could do in Saturday’s win, going off on The Johnnies with a barrage of threes that started in the second quarter and finished with the final points of the game. Sunday, meanwhile, Maurice Acker took the stage. Acker was the fourth scoring option on his senior-year Marquette team behind Hayward, Butler and Johnson-Odom. He was the first option Sunday, though, as the guy who was moreso a distributor in 2009-10 became a finisher against Hall in.

Jamil Wilson called it a “melting pot” of styles, but I think it’s important to point out the one thing that both figuratively and obviously brought these guys together: Marquette. Disparate coaching experiences and backgrounds aside, these were guys who played in the Bradley Center, trained at The Al, likely lived in Humphrey Hall and walked to practice down either Wisconsin Avenue or Wells Street. TBT reminded me there is a shared experience for students at a university, even across different eras, teachers and timeframes. Culture is a thing, and it seemed like it took less time for the Marquette alumni to get on the same page as each other, perhaps because they all shared that culture.

“We Are Marquette” is just a marketing phrase. It’s not all that original. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword; search for the phrase in this 2011 article from the Milwaukee Business Times about then-school president Fr. Scott Pilarz for a thoughtful perspective on how it might not be perceived well by those not part of the university. Still, there does seem to be something that can be said about how that “We” can apply to students and student-athletes who are separated by time but come together later. That’s a large part of Marquette’s selling point to all potential college students. This past weekend, it proved to be as successful a formula as ever for those lucky enough to be a part.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

TBT (THE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT) TBC (TO BE CONTINUED): While the Golden Eagles Alumni move onto the “Super 16” — don’t break the NCAA’s trademark on a more saccharine way of describing a group of 16 things — they have to wait until July 28 for their next game, as the BIG EAST and Hoopfest Pods were meant as kind of an appetizer for the rest of the first and second rounds, taking place July 14 and 21. If the Alumni can make enough waves such that they find themselves in Baltimore two games away from $2 million, we’ll check back in then. If not, let’s talk later in the fall.

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