High Hopes at (a new) Courtside

Welcome to the kindergarten year for Marquette Courtside; our fifth season of opining on Marquette Basketball from the depths of the website for the flagship of the school’s biggest rival. Somehow, the fine folks at The Big 920 have allowed me, Dan Pfeifer, to continue covering this team for that long. Either I haven’t gotten myself fired yet or they just aren’t reading. Probably the latter.

Something about this year feels different, though, as Marquette warms up to kick off the 2018-19 season with an 8 p.m. tilt tonight against social-media darlings UMBC.

In addition to the fifth year of Courtside, it’s also the fifth year in the tenure of Steve Wojciechowski, as well as the first year Marquette will play in Fiserv Forum, the sparkling new arena that fixed a lot of the Bucks’ problems, including an inability to host J. Balvin concerts. Additionally, this is the first year under Wojciechowski where Marquette is approaching the BIG EAST as more than an underdog. Minimal graduation losses — Marquette only lost one piece, or one thing, or one #TheThing in Andrew Rowsey — means returners like Markus Howard, a supposedly-healthy Sam Hauser, a hopefully eventually-healthy Greg Elliott, Theo John and Matt Heldt should not only be back but better. Additionally, Sam’s younger brother, Joey Hauser, has arrived and saw significant playing time in an exhibition against Carroll University-not-College, while Brendan Bailey aspires to be the best Mormon sports figure in Wisconsin since Darrell Bevell. (Aside: Bailey’s two-year Mormon mission was in Washington, D.C.; Bevell’s was in Cleveland. I feel bad for both.)

With the BIG EAST feeling more wide-open than it has been since its reformation, pundits have had trouble placing Marquette, sometimes putting them as high as second or third in preseason predictions, but also sometimes keeping them in the middle of the pack. The overall national press seems to be more impressed; Marquette is generally lingering just outside the top-25 in preseason rankings. It’s the first time we’ve seen such lofty sights for Wojo’s team.

For better or worse, Marquette hasn’t exceeded expectations in Wojciechowski’s first four seasons. His first year, understandably, was a wash, with barely enough players to field a team. Year two seemingly belonged to Henry Ellenson’s pro hopes. Year three saw Marquette finished third in the BIG EAST despite only being two games over .500 in conference play, along with a (brief) NCAA appearance. Last year, however, a step backward took Marquette both back under .500 in league as it settled for the consolation of missed free-throw theater and the NIT. Coming up short of The Big Dance last year was less than ideal. Stumbling to the finish of the regular-season, especially a rather ugly loss at DePaul, didn’t help.

That said, the pieces seem to be in place, but there still seems to be an air of anxiety among Marquette fans. Some questions:

  • WILL THEY (FINALLY) PLAY DEFENSE? Marquette has had one of the nation’s best offenses under Wojo, but the defense has been a far cry from the floor-slapping intensity many expected. The newcomers appear physically ready, but perception and reality can differ, plus the question mark of Elliott’s health (he’s out until December) means we won’t learn a lot in the non-conference season.
  • IS FISERV FORUM REALLY ALL THAT? It’s a nicer, more-intimate atmosphere, but it also has more trappings that can keep fans out of their seats and in the concourses, which seems to be a perpetual problem for Marquette games. The Carroll exhibition featured tarps covering seats in parts of the student sections – good in that they hide some emptiness, but bad in that tarped-off sections are seats that could have cheering students in them, yet don’t. Furthermore, the Forum has some small annoyances that may wear on fans as the new-arena smell subsides. Escalators are only on one side of the building. Beer prices are staggering. Some of the accoutrements, like the private clubs and whatnot, aren’t as easy to reach as one may think. Given the older Marquette fan base that may be bewildered by such things, there’s nervousness the arena might not achieve its desired effect and instead turn people off – maybe not now but in the future. As such, it might even put a little more pressure on the team to do well this year and in the next few to establish the building as one housing (Hauser-ing?) a winning, must-see team, not an expensive hassle.
  • HOW WILL MINUTES GET DIVIDED? With Bailey, Ed Morrow and Joey Hauser now in the fold, there’s some question as to whether Heldt and John might see their floor time reduced. Marquette, for the first time under Wojo has outstanding depth on paper. In the modern age of college basketball, though, depth can also cause kids to consider looking elsewhere to play if they don’t get the minutes they want. Marquette knows all too well that the roster you start a season with might not be the one you have to finish. While playing time is one of many reasons a kid might cast his eyes asunder, it’s an easy one to point to if a guy gets dissatisfied.
  • … WHAT IF?

That last point goes two directions: What if Marquette doesn’t live up to expectations? It may depend upon how much, but it seems this would be the year the fanbase would turn — hard — if Wojciechowski doesn’t deliver a second NCAA berth. Given the talent Marquette has, that seems unlikely, barring any catastrophic injuries. But after last year, what we’ve seen of the team’s defense, and its inconsistency, it still seems oddly possible.

The other direction is this, though: What if Wojciechowski and Marquette are highly successful, this year into next, and the powers-that-be at Duke start looking toward Wisconsin to replace Mike Krzyzewski? That would be a better scenario for Marquette fans than the previous one, but it’s still one I think they’re nervous about as well, particularly if Wojo does well enough to show he can be a winner, yet doesn’t deliver on another Final Four trip before Duke maybe comes calling. A lot of other things come into play at that point: Money, Wojo himself, the facilities, money, where the teams are at, money, you name it. It may not be as easy of a choice for Wojo as one might initially think. Cameron Indoor Stadium is nice, but it’s also small and not an expansive, brand-new NBA arena. That and other factors aside, I still think it’s in the back of all Marquette fans’ minds.

For the time being, though, practicing mindfulness and focusing on the good team on the nice floor in the shiny, new building should be where we start. Overthinking things? In Marquette Courtside? Some traditions never die. 

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS (You would have thought they sanded the court when installing it in the new arena, no?)

YOUR FIRST CHANCE TO U-M-B-SEE THE FORUM: I will hopefully not become the target of the famed @UMBCAthletics Twitter feed tonight as the season gets underway. I will probably fail.

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