No. 16 Marquette went into its BIG EAST opener against St. John’s on New Year’s Day riding the crest of several great performances to end the non-conference season. Pretty much ever since Marquette beat Wisconsin, it’s looked solid. What could have been a trap game against North Dakota instead was a dominant victory. Versus No. 14 Buffalo, Marquette pulled away in the second half. Against Southern, Marquette made quick work. We’ve longed for a level of consistency throughout the Steve Wojciechowski era. We finally started seeing it this past December.
Then the calendar turned, Marquette went to New York and the results weren’t pretty. A 20-point loss felt worse than that, given St. John’s looked faster, sharper and readier. Shamorie Ponds was unstoppable. Marvin Clark II couldn’t miss.
It’s easy, at first, to think it was a return to Marquette’s inconsistent ways. But even having watched every second of the game, I’m not having doubts about this team yet. One game is not enough to make that happen after a successful month.
St. John’s was up for Marquette, fresh off a tough loss to Seton Hall. After an unbeaten non-conference season, the Red Storm had something to prove against a MU team with two losses and a ranking next to its name. It was the conference home opener for St. John’s, and a chance to show it belonged in the somewhat-confusing conversation about top teams in the BIG EAST. It did.
Markus Howard was ice cold. Injuries and fatigue have made practicing difficult for him, so perhaps he was due for a night when the right team and defense shut him down. Add Sam Hauser not getting it going until the game was basically decided and that’s not a combination conducive to Marquette victories. I don’t so much file that as a failing on their part as I do under the category “It happens,” particularly on the road. Those two guys shouldn’t always be so off their game.
Speaking of the road, Marquette’s two worst losses thus far have come away from Fiserv Forum. It’s not like the road’s an uncommon Achilles’ heel for teams, though, and Marquette has faced tough matchups in Indiana and St. John’s. It takes a little more oomph to do well away, particularly when the home crowd is fired up to make a statement and it’s your first time making such a trip.
Let’s even consider the circumstances of the game: New Year’s Day, in New York City. I know some fans expect kids on scholarship to be single-mindedly focused on being basketball-playing machines, much the way some folks think government should be infallibly god-like and working 24-7 to make sure their every individual need is met. Realistically, that’s not the case.
I’ve mentioned here before that I was a manager for the 2000-01 Milwaukee Panthers’ team. Shortly before one year turned into another, we collectively boarded a plane to southern California to prepare for a game against the San Diego Toreros on Jan. 2. The team was given a curfew and told not to stay up to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I can verify, some guys found a way around it. Furthermore, I hope the statute of limitations is up on me saying that at least a couple coaches may have found their way to another city across the border on the trip. Point is, it happens. While I’m guessing Marquette’s players weren’t among the soaked masses in Times Square Monday night — soaked both because it was raining, and, well, for other reasons — I wouldn’t be surprised if they still got a little distracted somehow.
We can also discuss officiating, which we’ll do in the Splinters, and the way it held back the likes of Theo John and others from defending a hot Red Storm group. It wasn’t a deciding factor, but it was a contributing one. And lastly, let’s note the only Marquette player that seemed to have a good game: Freshman Joey Hauser, who led the team in scoring in his first BIG EAST game and, while not perfect, seemed to do a lot to keep the team in the game.
No, it wasn’t a great night. But if you can picture St. John’s having less to prove, Joey Hauser’s continued improvement, Howard and Sam Hauser on a more-normal night, just a couple more whistles going Marquette’s way, and the contest being on a random February Tuesday rather than a holiday evening, you can probably see a more-competitive contest. All those things aren’t difficult to imagine.
Inconsistency is when you beat No. 1 Villanova, then find a way to lose to DePaul. A loss like this isn’t a sign of inconsistency. It’s exactly what it is: A loss. I’m not saying it isn’t a big deal, especially if it becomes a trend. But it only counts as one in the standings, and when you can at least see several things off that are likely to be on during a different night, you should feel a little better about the whole thing.
STRIPES STRIFE: I tend to rail on Marquette fans who rail on referees. When fans start complaining about officiating, I tend to side with the refs. I love fans — be a fan — but many don’t realize when they’re wearing team-colored goggles, much less the strength of their tint.
The St. John’s game, though, was one of the more one-sidedly officiated games I’d seen in some time. John commits a run-of-the-mill foul while fighting for the ball, says nothing and puts his hands up in the air when he gets shoved by an angry, mouthing-off Ponds. Somehow, John gets the same technical foul Ponds does from official Pat Driscoll, nicknamed “Double T Patty D” by fans who note his tendency to hand all parties a technical foul whenever there’s any sort of scrap. There were more than a few instances where John and others were called for fouls that could consider meager contact. Meanwhile, on another possession, Howard was surrounded and nearly abused by three Red Storm players, including getting tripped while trying to go up. No call.
Again, I’m not saying it decided the game, and you expect the home team will get the benefit of the doubt. But even FS1 analyst Len Elmore said a few of the calls were questionable, and it’s not like he had a horse in the race.
Driscoll and New Year’s Day ref-mate Roger Ayers have made top 10 lists for college officials. Ayers was called the best in the country in this 2017 article. This one has a clickbait headline and uses a perhaps-overly objective mathematical formula, yet it puts Driscoll on its ‘best’ list as well.
If anything, it’s a reminder: Great refs are hard to find. The more you ask for bad calls to result in fines or firings, the more people won’t want to become officials, which will only make officiating worse. If anything, you almost need go the other way: Build in rewards for refs who consistently get scored highly in officials observers. Try to have a neutral review process of some sort. With players getting bigger and faster, and the game getting more physical, it’s not like the job gets easier year after year.
I try to see it from the officials’ side. Tuesday stretched my suspension of disbelief, though.
OUR LORD AND XAVIER: MU plays Xavier at Fiserv Forum Saturday at 11 a.m. CST.
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