Marquette Physics 101: A Newtonian look at Marquette's current success

If you haven’t been able to tell from five years of Marquette Courtside blogs, I’m a different kind of cat . For instance, you won’t find many college basketball bloggers out there who will say they enjoyed, and succeeded, in their high school physics class. With a big tip of the cap to Brookfield Central’s wonderful husband and wife team of Anna & Jay Zimmerman , however, it was my favorite topic .

The first semester of physics, Zimmerman-style, was all about movement. The way they laid it out taught me ways of thinking applicable not just to kinetics, but a whole lot in life. I look at it as “rates of change” and “levels of change.” Here’s my quick summary of the basic ideas:

1.Position is where something is

2.Velocity, or speed, is how fast something’s position (#1) is changing

3.Acceleration is how fast something’s velocity (#2) is changing

All three concepts can be stated in relation to each other. A stationary object is in a particular position; it has no velocity or acceleration. An object moving at a constant velocity has a position changing at a constant rate; however, when velocity is constant, even if it’s non-zero, it has no acceleration. An accelerating object is one that’s speeding up (or slowing down); its velocity is changing at a constant rate and its position is changing at an ever-faster rate . There are even formulas to calculate all of this out.

The Zimmermans taught us this without using calculus; however, once I started taking calculus classes in college, I saw how the two subjects were intertwined. My understanding of how the rate of something at one level changing affected the rate of something at another level changing helped me understand calculus quickly, too. I was pretty good academically for my first two or three years in college in the tough topic of Computer Science, in large part due to the logic I learned in high school physics. Of course, eventually, stuff got complicated and I discovered a drink with (tasty) corn syrup.

Let’s apply some of these physics concepts, though, to Marquette Basketball.

First, let’s look at where Marquette is now — its current position (#1), if you will — ranked 10th in the country (should have risen, but again, pollsters are what they are ) after going to Indianapolis, inexplicably tapped as a three-point underdog, and thoroughly thrashing Butler, 76-58.

Maybe the oddsmakers thought Marquette’s history at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where MU hadn’t won a game since 1990, would cause problems. It did not. Even almost a week removed, it still feels jolting to know Butler pretty much never had a chance. We’re so used to the Bulldogs not only beating everyone at Hinkle, but looking energized and empowered by the close quarters and historic nature of the facility while opponents appear intimidated. During an 11-0 run, I noted that it was the only time Butler looked like it had any intensity at all. Marquette answered, however, with a 12-0 run.

Marquette is in a far better position (#1) than it has been under Wojo. But how did it get there?

Think back to Marquette’s lone BIG EAST loss thus far, at St. John’s. That was a performance we were used to from Wojo’s teams in his first four years at Marquette. MU went on the road and looked like the slower, less-capable, less-able team against a lively group at home. In the BIG EAST, that’s typical. At that point, that’s not a Marquette team whose position (#1) looked much different than it had been in other years in conference play. No movement, or velocity (#2), and no acceleration (#3). From what we had seen in non-conference play, we thought there had been some positive velocity (#2), but velocity can change (#3) — you have a brake pedal on your car, or at least I hope you do .

What we’ve seen in the games since, though, hasn’t just been a change in position (#1), or even a change in velocity (#2), but a pretty clear acceleration (#3). After the St. John’s loss, Marquette got a solid home win against Xavier before a wild finish and Markus Howard cape-wearing performance in a win at Creighton. It even gutted out a tough win over Seton Hall. Marquette was clearly showing it was in a better position (#1) than after St. John’s, so there had to be some improvement, but much like when you first hit the gas pedal in your car, it’s not like the velocity (#2) changed all that quickly (#3).

Then, though, Marquette found a way to win at Georgetown without Howard. Wojo said, and I agree, that’s not a game MU wins in the past. MU follows that by taking command of a game it struggled in early against Providence, then does what it should do against DePaul. Those games felt better than the ones that came before them — acceleration (#3).

At Xavier, Marquette outworked a team buoyed by a great crowd. It then ripped apart Butler in a building that had been a house of horrors for it. Suddenly, in places were Marquette has struggled before, the issues it had — winning tough games, winning on the road, heck, winning with Matt Heldt on the floor — didn’t matter. Marquette showed it could overcome just about any challenge.

They’re in a good spot, they’ve improved to get to a good spot, and they’ve shown a fast rate of improvement, gaining more and more confidence and dominance as the BIG EAST season has gone along. Those are solid rates of change at every level. I’m impressed.

Marquette goes into the return game against St. John’s ready to show just how far it’s come since that loss. Here’s another physics concept, though, and one that comes moreso from the second semester of high school physics: What’s the only thing that can change an object’s momentum? The answer is an outside force. If St. John’s, or No. 14 Villanova, can stop Marquette’s meteoric rise, maybe we’ll have to re-evaluate Marquette’s upward velocity and acceleration. But it’s one thing to fight a team that’s good, another thing to fight a team that’s getting better, and an even more difficult thing to fight a team whose rate of improvement has been as substantial as Marquette’s. The Red Storm and Wildcats might be able to slow Marquette, but I struggle to see them being brick walls that can completely absorb MU’s energy. Marquette is accelerating, which gives its mass of fans every reason to feel forceful .

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

A GOOD MEASURE: St. John’s comes to Fiserv Forum tonight, and given how poorly Marquette played in the first meeting, it will be a good test to see just how much the team has transformed. As much as folks are looking forward to the Villanova game, I’m almost more interested in the games bookending it. Will St. John’s speed and athleticism continue to be an issue for Marquette? And after two huge games, will MU come out flat on the road next week against DePaul? It’s an interesting time to follow this team.

FUN FISERV FORUM FACT: We’ve been running out of room in the Splinters a lot this year, so we haven’t been able to highlight as many splinter-like items. For instance, between the Bucks and Marquette, away teams are 36-4 at Fiserv Forum. Clearly, the bench chairs make a huge difference .

LOTS OF EXCITEMENT: I will not be at the St. John’s game, but I am hoping to be at the Villanova tilt after Marquette Lacrosse’s Saturday afternoon game. Follow my thoughts on the tweet machine .

Photo: Getty Images

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