Looking for a Corner

With Marquette off for final exams, we here at Courtside took a step back and thought bigger picture this week. It’s time to evaluate where Marquette is at as a program — and where it’s going.

Something hit me while I was watching the Kansas State game: For the first time in a long time, it felt like Marquette wasn’t relying solely on Markus Howard to be the savior, likely as a residual effect of his being out the previous game in concussion protocol. While there were still turnovers, and the level of play was only good enough to beat a team overdue for a home non-conference loss on an off night, it seemed like there was a renewed focus on at least trying to move the ball and giving guys other than Howard a chance to be aggressive.

There was a part of me, for a sliver of a moment, after having advocated in last week’s blog for what we saw against K-State, that thought maybe we were seeing Marquette turn a corner with that performance. A renewed focus on teamwork and all five guys on the floor being assertive leaders felt like a big step in the right direction.

I then decided to check myself. Marquette fans have been in this boat before. A few good performances make you think the team is starting to figure it out. Then something gets lost, teams figure out what Marquette is doing, and things fall apart. It was the story arc, in full, last season.

Still, this is what Marquette fans are waiting for: A moment when the team, clearly, turns the corner. A moment when the money, resources, time and six years of Steve Wojciechowski coaching pays off.

When you step back, you remind yourself that six years, in our current age, is an eternity. It’s almost hard to believe Wojciechowski is in his sixth year. There are times where it looks like he, and his team, are still figuring things out. Marquette has not returned to being a national powerhouse. To describe them as “just OK” is apt. There’s a decent chance this season will produce Marquette’s third NCAA tournament appearance in six years, and first set of consecutive trips, though none has produced a win yet. There have been high-level individual talents, with Howard and Henry Ellenson immediately coming to mind. But Wojo has never developed a top-to-bottom team that consistently scares you. For the most part, over the last four years, if you stopped Howard, you had a decent chance to beat Marquette. As much as we try to make analyzing Marquette Basketball more complicated than that, it’s not.

In terms of recruiting, Marquette still seems to show up on a lot of kids’ radar. Before I tell you to get off my lawn, I’ll say I’m not really thrilled with the public “narrowing of schools” process you see players belabor on social media nowadays. Maybe it has something to do with the fact I was pretty much told, by my mom, throughout my youth, I was going to UWM and that was that. But while the social media process feels like a charade, the fact Marquette is routinely in the final however-many schools of high-hype kids makes you think it’s seen as a potential option for a lot of talent.

Consider this, though: While we’ve seen players grow, how many Wojo prospects have been like Jae Crowder or Jimmy Butler? Guys who maybe weren’t the most heralded coming into college but became better than advertised through quality coaching and team play? Setting aside Ellenson and Howard, generational talents the moment they stepped onto campus, who has really grown a ton as a player under Wojciechowski? Theo John? Andrew Rowsey? Not really. Think about Sacar Anim, Jamal Cain and Greg Elliott. None are bad players, but all feel like afterthoughts. If anything, the guys that could have best showed Wojo’s ability to develop stars decided to take their games elsewhere this offseason. That, as has been pointed out myriad times, should also be taken into consideration.

Part of the reason it’s important to discuss this now is because the clock is ticking on what you’re going to do for the future. The end of the Howard era means the offense needs a new focus next year.

Someone I talk to regularly tells me he thinks Wojciechowski has two more years left in him at Marquette if he doesn’t turn this proverbial corner: This year, then the next to try and prove he can get it done without Howard or Ellenson. At that point, he thinks the welcome will be worn out and either one side or the other will go a different direction. I’m not sure that’s the smartest thing for Marquette, though. Wojo’s extension was the bare minimum to allow him to continue recruiting. You set yourself up for long-term issues with losing a decade’s worth of fans if you have a problematic next season, then need to tear down and try and build back up again. If anything, a clean break might be advantageous for both sides. We shouldn’t even assume Wojo won’t take matters into his own hands.

In the meantime, though, we give this group a chance and wait, patiently, to see if it can do the things outlined here: Have a second or third player, even Koby McEwen, step up as a valid scoring option; beat some teams it shouldn’t while beating all the teams it should; progress and take things to a level it hasn’t been at since the Buzz Williams era. At times, it’s seemed like Wojciechowski and Marquette have done just enough to stay safe. Fans’ patience has worn thin sometimes the last couple years, but because guys have largely said the right things and met expectations, without greatly exceeding them (save Howard), status quo ante bellum has been the order at The Al McGuire Center.

As I like to say, however, “nothing changes if nothing changes.” At some point, years of the occasional NCAA appearance with no deep runs feel lackluster. To change that, something has to change: If not ball movement and the level of confidence in guys’ shooting, then maybe the people in charge.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

GRILLING WEBER: For the second-straight year, Marquette proved to be a nemesis for UWM alum and former Marquette University High School assistant Bruce Weber, as MU took down his Kansas State Wildcats last weekend, 73-65, ending their nearly five-year home non-conference unbeaten streak. This came on the heels of Marquette knocking off the then-10th-ranked Wildcats last year, 83-71, in front of many of Weber’s family members and friends at Fiserv Forum.

I’m obviously going to root for a guy who went to my alma mater, and he clearly had success at SIU, in his early years at Illinois proper and with his Elite Eight K-State team two years ago. But when you look at the talent he’s had, you wonder why his teams haven’t gotten further. His list of guys who have gone pro from K-State is longer than Wojo’s over a similar span, yet only one year seems significantly better.

I can’t say I watch a lot of K-State basketball when Marquette isn’t playing them, and two games against MU aren’t a worthy sample size. Like I say, I’m rooting for Weber. Hopefully he keeps it together.

THE RUBE GOLDBERG THEORY OF GAME COVERAGE: Marquette plays Grambling State Tuesday night. Through an interesting interweaving of how things work in Milwaukee PA announcer circles, I will only be covering the game if I am not needed for MATC basketball PA, which would only be the case if UW-Whitewater loses its Division III NCAA tournament football game this weekend. Now you know.

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