Thud: Marquette's season came crashing down

I was a little surprised when some folks used the #mubb hashtag last Thursday, in the wake of Marquette getting pummeled by Murray State, to say MU had a good season. They pointed to how Marquette rose to No. 10, established Fiserv Forum as a tough place to play, and so on.

I’d like to buy it, but I can’t. For better or worse, in the 21st century, your season is judged on two things: How you did compared to expectations, and how you finished. Even if you’re truly great in the regular season, the postseason’s still the story. People don’t remember the 2007 Patriots without remembering they lost the Super Bowl. The Packers went 15-1 in 2011, but they still come off as disappointing because they didn’t do squat in the playoffs.

A better comparison for the 2018-19 Marquette Golden Eagles are the 2014 Brewers, who led the National League Central through Aug. 31. That team didn’t even get to the season. A September with nine wins in just 26 tries doomed them to third place, no playoffs and a hot seat for manager Ron Roenicke, who was fired a month into a slow start to 2015.

Consider the flip side, too: The 1977 Marquette Warrior team still celebrated to this day. Al McGuire did not consider them anything close to his best team. They lost the final three home games of McGuire’s career, two to unranked opponents. They had seven regular-season losses and were ranked No. 19 in the final week of the regular season. During a time when only 32 teams made the NCAA tournament, some felt Marquette was lucky to get in. MU’s first tournament game was against a Cincinnati team that had beaten the Warriors during the regular season. The ‘77 team proves that you’re not judged on how you start, or how do in the middle, but how you finish.

The stunning part of this year’s late-season Marquette collapse is how it snowballed. It’s ancient history now, but Marquette played its best game of the season right before the freefall, a 76-58 shellacking of Providence on the road. A 67-61 loss to Villanova, in and of itself, shouldn’t have been too shattering.

Where things started going awry was in the 66-60 loss to Creighton. Creighton turned a that unlocked myriad Marquette turnovers and created a panicky sense there were bigger problems than, perhaps, even existed.

When the turnovers got fixed, the shooting went awry. When the shooting got fixed, the defense went haywire. Marquette had the look of a golfer going through swing changes or a baseball player in a slump. It got too caught up in trying to fix things instead of winning games. Slumping hitters or tour pros are often lost until they can relax, stop thinking and just play. Marquette did that against St. John’s in the BIG EAST tournament, but when the Seton Hall game went off the rails, it hit the reset button on the team’s nervous reflexes. In the end, Marquette played its worst game of the year by any measure against a Murray State team psyched to show what it could do on a big stage. The Racers were loose, fluid and lacked hesitancy. As soon as Ja Morant saw Marquette trailing any man defensively, he found that man with a pass that usually had an open path to the basket in front of it. Meanwhile, everything that fell apart for Marquette during the season-ending skid, save maybe the officiating woes of the BIG EAST loss, blew up again, notably a second-half shooting performance that was “give me a second bag to put over that head” ugly.

A lot of it goes back to what we said last week. When a team is capable of doing great things, but seems oddly and suddenly lost as to how to do them after accomplishing so much before, you look at the coach. Steve Wojciechowski literally deleted his Twitter this week (by the way, these five years have aged him a lot), but I don’t feel like I’m standing on a wobbly limb when by saying he’s not getting fired. Winning, for better or worse in college, isn’t everything, particularly after some of what Marquette had to handle with Wojo and athletic director Bill Scholl’s predecessors. Wojo is well-spoken and earnest when he extolls the virtues he wants players to possess as young men. He’s better at articulating those ideas to the media than he is his game strategy. It’s somewhat understandable, as he doesn’t probably want to show every opponent how he handles Xs and Os, but too many generalities and clichés about heart and maturity, without getting into enough specifics about what tasks need to be accomplished and how, can make fans conclude he doesn’t have the strategic toolkit to solve problems. Still, I think Marquette’s athletic department will consider the relative academic and behavioral peace Wojo has brought, along with his ability to present a proper corporate face for a white-collar program. While this season is yet another disappointment, it was still an improvement and the best yet under Wojciechowski. It’s a longer road than folks would like, but even with the finish, the team is on an overall upward trend.

That said, with everyone thinking Marquette may be a title contender in 2019-20, one more year of underachieving would probably be all it takes. While Marquette has been frustrating under Wojo, they haven’t been a team to write-off. Top recruits are interested, fans are buying tickets and the program garners attention. It doesn’t make sense to tear down and start over when the team doesn’t seem to have peaked yet.

Marquette fans have high expectations, as they should, given the money Marquette invests in basketball. I used the word ‘frustrating’ above. There’s a line between frustrating and bad. If Marquette’s players start stop playing hard for Wojo, or if we continue to see stretches where Marquette can’t leave its own head, that’s when it’s time to shake things up. Frustrating as this year was, they’re not at a shake-up point yet. Next year’s going to tell us a lot, particularly given how MU will need to rinse the taste of this year’s embarrassing finish from people’s mouths. Wojo does enough right to buy more chances than other coaches. The stock of chances on the shelf, though, is running thin.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

MY COMPLIMENTS TO MY COMPLEMENTS: Before we wrap up, I need to give a major shoutout to Jimmie Kaska, who pulled the strings behind the scenes this year to make Marquette Courtside happen, all while also organizing a station launch AND taking care of a newborn. Jimmie’s the man, and all five of you readers ought to know it. I also need to thank everyone at iHeartMedia Milwaukee for letting me ramble on like this for five years. I am hopeful Marquette Courtside will be back in 2019-20, but the radio business teaches you there’s no guarantees. I provide content one of a cluster of six radio stations. I’m only on air about nine nights a year for high school football. I’m never actually on an in-studio mic. That iHeart doesn’t overlook me is not something I take for granted. Others aren’t so lucky.

As always, thanks to all of you readers as well. Hopefully, each new blog makes you at least give thought to the ins and outs of, in my biased opinon, the best college basketball team around to follow, even when they play like they did against Murray State. Do look for occasional here-and-there notes through the spring, and perhaps with a Marquette return appearance in The Basketball Tournament. Until high school football season, as I say and believe … “Be a fan.”

Photo: Getty Images

Ja Morant's triple-double sinks Marquette 83-64 in NCAA Tournament
Ja Morant's triple-double sinks Marquette 83-64 in NCAA Tournament
Markus Howard's game-high 26 points weren't enough to help #5 Marquette avoid the dreaded 5-12 upset, as #12 Murray State dominated the Golden Eagles in a 19-point...

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