Too Much of a Good Thing: Less Markus Howard the Quick Fix for Marquette

We’ve noted before that it’s much easier to cover a winning team than a losing one. When a team is winning, players are upbeat, coaches are talkative and there’s little fear what you say will be interpreted as overly critical. Also, it’s easier to say nice things about winning teams than losing ones.

For most of this season, we here at Marquette Courtside have had it pretty easy. Not after last week, though. It’s not like there’s a shortage of topics with Marquette having lost two-straight games and fallen to 16th in the most recent Associated Press poll.

Let’s address one of a number of elephants in the room head on: Marquette is relying upon Markus Howard way too much. The numbers alone make this plain. It’s not simply the shooting, as Howard took 19 of Marquette’s 48 shots (40 percent of the team’s attempts) in a 67-61 loss to Villanova and 21 of its 46 shots (46 percent) in the 66-60 defeat at Creighton’s hands. It’s also the turnovers. Marquette had 40 as a team over those two games. Howard alone has 13.

We pause here to note that Steve Wojciechowski wants us to pin the blame for everything on him. “It is completely and totally on me,” he said after Sunday’s Creighton game. “We’re not doing what we need to do to win, and the responsibility, when that happens, falls on the head coach, and that’s me.” Teaching his kids to be fully, personally accountable for failure is a good deed on Wojo’s part, though his tone made you wonder if he was really self-flagellating or just trying to show a way to handle adversity he didn’t feel his players were showing enough of themselves. Wojo cajoled us in the media not to ask his players what’s wrong — more on that later — much less consider them at fault. Still, Wojo isn’t on the floor with the ball. If only to avoid getting a death stare at the next press conference, consider this, then, not so much blame-placing as reasoning as to why what’s happening is happening.

Lest you think that means we’re going to say Howard is the primary cause of the issue, know that’s not the case. If anything, I look as much at the guys not named Howard as the guy who has it on his jersey. Marquette’s other options need to be just that — legit, available, threatening options that other teams need to take into account. That means moving off and asking for the ball with a willingness to shoot.

Let’s start with Sacar Anim, who went just 1-for-6 against Villanova and 3-for-6 versus Creighton. One thing that’s notable in all four halves of basketball across those games is that Anim’s usage in each half significantly decreases as the half wears on, save only the first half of the Villanova game, where, even though he missed a couple shots and had a turnover, the mere threat of him at least gave the Wildcats’ defense someone else to consider, helping Marquette erase eight of the 12 points it trailed by before halftime. When that’s not happening, it’s as if he either gets forgotten about or he forgets to be aggressive and attack.

You see a similar trend with Marquette’s big men — not just Theo John, mind you, who has struggled with foul trouble in these games, but Ed Morrow and even Matt Heldt, too. When Marquette’s been at its best this season, even without great distributors, it’s used penetration to draw in defenders, often leaving those big guys open on the opposite block, if not creating opportunities for Howard or Sam and Joey Hauser beyond the arc by playing inside-out. We haven’t seen much of that lately, though. Even against bigger teams, Morrow can still do some impressive things with the ball when given the chance. While he has four shots in each of the last two games, only two of his five makes have been on anything other than a putback. Let’s not forget how efficient Heldt was last year, too, and while John looks a bit shaken sometimes by the fouls he draws, one way to give him the confidence to settle down is to give him the rock in a good spot and have him throw it down occasionally. Even in limited time due to foul trouble, three shots in the last two games seems like too few for him.

Of course, this is not to absolve Howard or the Hausers. Sam and Joey have been inconsistent of late, which you might be able to chalk up to them feeling the weird vibe the rest of the team is giving off. As for Howard, had this week’s column included even one win to talk about, we almost surely would have written about the weapon his step-back three can be when it’s on. That said, while it’s nearly unstoppable, you can also see it coming sometimes — notably where Howard lines up on the wing and how he steadies himself with the dribble to create the illusion of attacking. I sometimes begin to believe his teammates see it coming, too, and appear to stop playing offense in those moments. Then you start seeing it at other times, too. I’m not going to say they’re watching in awe and amazement, though it is pretty amazing when Howard gets it to go. But whether it be Howard making the decision to take the offense into his own hands, like when he did almost all of Marquette’s scoring for nearly eight minutes against Creighton, or his teammates’ not asserting themselves and their ability to score, too, we’re not seeing those guys carry themselves, with the ball or without it, like a team believing any of the five guys on the floor could take the game over. That’s part of the reason Howard, either when he has the ball himself or needs to get rid of it, is committing all these turnovers. It’s almost like his teammates are expecting, nay hoping, he alone can do it all for them. That’s not how championship teams win.

If Wojciechowski wants to take responsibility and say he needs to “better communicate” what to do to his team, he may want to remind the other four players on the floor not named Howard they’re not there simply to help Howard out. They’re there to lead, score and dominate, too. Yes, that means making yourself available when Howard needs to get rid of the ball. But that doesn’t mean to simply stay out of Howard’s way and watch him do what he does.

The oddly worded idiom “the strength of our team is our team” was one we heard a lot when Marquette was winning BIG EAST games easily this season. Right now, teams aren’t looking at Marquette that way. The strength, and the weakness, of Marquette is Howard and how much he’s expected to do, whether that expectation is coming from himself, his teammates or Wojciechowski. Wojo expects more of himself. Howard’s teammates need to do more than have an expectation. They need to take action.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

EASY, SIR: A subtle word of advice to Wojo — be careful with the phrase “don’t ask my players about” whatever. The concept of a ‘sports journalist’ is kind of an oxymoron, given how little investigation we have to do and how much info we’re hand fed. But we’re still journalists, and in 2019, being told authoritatively not to ask about things is a sensitive journalistic topic. We know they’re college kids. We’re not out to play “gotcha.” We’re just trying to create a narrative in order to tell the story of, and even promote, the team. If we feel like the question needs to be asked, trust us enough to believe it’s being asked for the right reasons. We need more of that journalistic trust in our world right now.

DOWN TO THE WIRE: Now Marquette’s potential BIG EAST title celebration is in doubt. We’ll know whether or not it gets to raise a banner after a road game at Seton Hall tomorre and the regular-season finale Saturday against Georgetown.

Photo: Getty Images

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