Marquette Courtside: Re-Assessing an Earlier Assessment

It’s rain-on-parade time at Marquette Courtside — better than the snow we’ve been getting, I suppose.

Marquette is very good. But I’m not certain they’re No. 12 in the country good. I’m also not necessarily sure Marquette fans should want them to be labeled 12th-best-in-the-country good, either.

I will confess a couple things before I make this claim: First off, I’m not basing this off other teams in the rankings, which makes the logic flawed from the start. I can’t give you an informed, nuanced-enough opinion of Tennessee, Nevada, Maryland and Texas Tech to tell you where teams should be ranked relative to one another. I’m basing it more off my concept of what a team at various spots in the rankings should be, which is admittedly arbitrary. Secondly, I am intentionally being nitpicky.

Marquette was ranked 15th last week, which felt more right. With that ranking in hand, it played a very complete game against Georgetown, winning a tough road tilt without its best player, Markus Howard, for most of the contest. It then returned home to Fiserv Forum, where an energized crowd willed it to a gritty, come-from-behind victory over Providence on Dwyane Wade Day.

While these were good wins, they also came over teams that are now a combined 3-8 in a down year for the BIG EAST. Despite it being a dreaded 11 a.m. Sunday start, Providence outplayed Marquette through much of the first half. Flashback to another 11 a.m. start against Xavier on Jan. 6 and Marquette only had three guys score its 35 points in the first half, one of whom was Howard. Not that they didn’t win either game, but I’d be more concerned about Marquette in an NCAA tournament game that starts the day at a Round of 64 site than I would be if they were playing the last game of the day.

I also don’t find it reassuring that Marquette’s best player, Howard, who had been on a limited practice schedule at times before Georgetown, seems more likely than before to have a night where things just don’t loosen up. Maybe you can beat Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas when that’s the case (I’m still not sold on Ewing’s coaching), but I’m not convinced Sam & Joey Hauser have it in them to topple, say, No. 2 Duke, or even No. 18 Villanova. Show me Howard’s fully healthy and I might be more convinced Marquette belongs at 12. I didn’t see enough against Providence to make me feel like he is. In 2009, Dominic James had Marquette looking like a national-title contender until he broke a bone in his foot in a tough loss to No. 2 UConn (who is welcome to drop its costly football program down to FCS and re-join the BIG EAST any day). That MU team, with four future-NBA players (Jimmy Butler, Lazar Hayward, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal), only made it to the second round, where even James’ heroic return couldn’t lift Marquette over No. 9 Missouri. Injuries matter, and back injuries are weird and difficult.

Let’s say Howard can get right, though. The rest of the team, for as many strides as it has taken consistency-wise, still has stretches where it lets opponents make gains. More often than not, MU has still put teams away, memorably when Joey Hauser’s three-straight threes against then-No. 14 Buffalo set Marquette alight the rest of that night. But those runs might not be there against better teams.

I think there’s a path to beating Marquette. It’s not an easy one — I didn’t say MU shouldn’t be ranked, nor that it should be ranked lower than 15 — but it’s apparent to me. It’s not like this is a common combination, but to stop Marquette, you need rangy players who can hang with Howard and the Hausers defensively on the perimeter to force them out of threes and into mid-range shots. Then you need size and agility down low to handle Theo John, as well as if the Triple-H crew or Sacar Anim drive.

If those theoretical big guys stay out of foul trouble, and have the offensive prowess to get Joey Hauser, John and Ed Morrow, Jr. into foul trouble, MU could be vulnerable.

If I were a coach, here would be my game plan: Shake Anim’s confidence early such that he doesn’t turn it on, because he has been an X-factor. Focus on defending Howard and Sam Hauser first. Make them take step-back threes if they want to shoot outside. If they try to beat you on the dribble, fine, but have big guys down low ready to help and switch off to take away block-to-block passes, while also making sure wings defend off the ball to prevent kick-outs. Try to get John and Morrow on the bench by going at them early. That puts you in a position where you’re forcing Steve Wojciechowski to use Matt Heldt minutes. Take advantage of those times to score, play lock-down defense and build a lead. Then, defend for your life and keep going down low, with the occasional outside shot to keep guys honest.

The point: Marquette is good, but they’ve got growing to do to be complete. I feel like the line between teams that are really good and complete teams comes somewhere between No. 12 and No. 15. It’s the difference between a three-seed in a tournament region and a four-seed. And that’s the thing: I can see a fourth-seeded Marquette beating a 13-seed and a five-seed. Were it a three-seed, I’d still like it against a 14, but I’m not so sure I’d like them against a plucky six that does extra homework and figures out a good game plan. In more ways than one, I think No. 15 would be a better place for them right now. Still, as we said a few weeks ago when we were arguing the opposite direction and saying MU was underrated, rankings are ultimately pretty meaningless. Wojo himself has said they mean little to him and his focus is on improving, which is exactly where it should be. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what happens to perception should a .500-or-under BIG EAST team knock MU off, as is wont to happen in the basketball-hotbed. Marquette feels due for a slip. The question is when, where and how. Given the opponent tonight is DePaul at home, I think most fans are just hoping tonight isn’t the night.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS AM FAM FLIMFLAM: Milwaukee was abuzz yesterday about how one of its favorite places will have a different name in 2021. Two quick realities about Milwaukeeans: We’re loyal and cheap. The brand loyalty here is real; order a Bud product in a Milwaukee tavern and you will get the side-eye from at least one patron and possibly the bartender. (Disclosure: My grandfather worked for Miller for many years, so I may participate in the side-eyeing.) Our relatively low cost of living and notorious spendthrift nature also makes us less apt to sell-out our loyalty for cash. Yes, the synergy of a team named the Brewers playing at Miller Park felt right. But if American Family is willing to spend however-much more, and that makes the difference in whether or not the team can bring in better players, I’m down.

The last three Milwaukee sports venues to get corporate names all drew from the financial sector: BMO Harris, Fiserv and now AmFam. Our loyalty is moreso to production than finance here — Miller (beer), Harley-Davidson (motorcycles), etc. I think that relates to our industrial and farming roots: We respect making things more than making money. But money equals wins. If you still want to call it Miller Park because it’s the park where you drink Miller (they’ll still serve MillerCoors products), go right ahead. But the reality is, the team will take the money, just as the Bucks did from Fiserv. If that keeps those teams winning, and beer and ticket prices low(er) for us, maybe we all should just be happy about that.

DePAUL COMES TO DeFORUM: 7:30 tonight. MU then has a rematch against Xavier in Cincinnati, Saturday at 1 p.m. CST.

Photo: Getty Images

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