At 19-11 and 10-8 in the Big East, there is no guarantee Marquette will be dancing come Selection Sunday. While they do carry big wins over Villanova, season sweeps of Big East foes Xavier and Creighton, and “better-than-you-think” non-conference wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia early in the season, there are some blemishes on their resume. Losses to Georgetown and St. John’s would have been okay maybe a decade ago, but considering how far those programs have fallen, they have become more of a liability to their tournament chances than a liability. Add that with shaky RPI (59) and SOS (68) numbers, and it makes sense why many Marquette fans and alums may be sweating a bit next Sunday, unless they make a deep run in the Big East tournament this upcoming week (an appearance in the championship game “should” seal it; a win would definitely do so).
However, the Golden Eagles, whether or not they make tourney (they should; Joe Lunardi has them as a last four-in and a 10 seed in his current bracket prediction), have experienced a bit of a renaissance under third year head coach and former “Dookie” Steve Wojciechowski (who will be referred to as “Wojo” from here on out). The Jesuit, Milwaukee-based school has not made the tournament since 2013, Buzz Williams’ second-to-last season before he bolted to Virginia Tech. While Marquette has still been able to stay in the realm of respectability in the Big East (unlike Georgetown or St. John’s, who have fallen off cliffs in that time span), the lack of tournament appearances, and the resurgence of in-state rival Wisconsin, who nearly won a national title in 2015, has not helped the profile of the storied basketball program. Remember, this is a program that not only has won a national title and been to the Final Four, but also has produced bon-a-fide NBA stars currently such as Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Jae Crowder, just to name a few. Marquette, without a football program and located in the heart of the city in Milwaukee, should have the kind of imprint in the Midwest that Gonzaga has in the West Coast.
And thus, it is understandable that the administration not only tabbed Wojo as Buzz’s replacement, but also why Wojo left his seat as the right-hand man to Coach K at Duke. Unlike colleagues who left for major rebuilding jobs (like Chris Collins to Northwestern) or semi-rebuilding jobs (like Johnny Dawkins to Stanford, where he flamed out), Marquette is a powder keg of potential, and one can see how the move would benefit Wojo in the future. A Final Four and perhaps national title would seal the deal for him as Coach K’s successor (he has always been seen as thus, and many felt he left the bench simply to get head coaching experience). On the flip side though, the program is big enough and prestige enough that if he were to achieve consistent success, he could stay long-term and enter the pantheon of Big East coaching legends such as John Thompson, Jr., Jim Boeheim, and Lou Carnesecca, just to name a few.
Of course, being a “Big East coaching legend” wasn’t enough for Williams, who left for the ACC after five 20-plus win seasons, not to mention tournament berths (also add an elite eight and two sweet 16 appearances to that resume). So, considering Wojo’s Duke ties and his considerable time as an assistant on Tobacco Road, it may be foolheartedly to believe that Wojo will fill in McGuire’s shoes in Milwaukee.
Despite the murky long-term future, that doesn’t mean Wojo and the Golden Eagles haven’t been a remarkable and worthy team to pay attention to heading into the Big East tournament (and hopefully the NCAA one as well).
Williams certainly achieved his fair share of success at Marquette. One doesn’t lead his team to at least the Sweet 16 three years in a row without being a good coach, if not one of the nation’s 25 best, perhaps. However, if there was one knock on Williams’ teams, it was that they typically played the kind of basketball that college basketball haters tend to point to: grind-it-out, physical, messy affairs that produced wins and success, but didn’t necessarily win style points or affinity from the general basketball fan, especially those who tend to favor the NBA’s more wide-open game (much like myself). His team only ranked within the Top-100 in fastest pace twice (2012, and 2009, his first season), and in his last three years, ranked 126th, 112th, and 210th in effective field goal rate. Add that with a lack of usage of the three point shot (in his last four years, they only ranked under the 300 mark once in 3-point field goal attempts, and that mark was 257th), and while Marquette fans miss Buzz’s energy and postseason success, the same can’t be said of his archaic on-court approach, especially on the offensive end.
Flash forward three seasons later, and Wojo has Marquette playing a different kind of ball. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Golden Eagles (who rank 28th overall in his rankings) rank 8th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 5th in effective field goal rate, 1st in three-point percentage, 19th in points coming from three-pointers, 57th in assists to field goals made, 72nd in 3-pointers to field goal attempts, 75th in average possession rate, and 78th in adjusted tempo. In other words, Wojo has transformed the Eagles into a run-and-gun, three-point bombing squad, the antithesis of the “Royal Rumble” affairs commonly seen in the Buzz-era.
Of course, this transition didn’t necessarily come immediately. In years 1 and 2, Wojo seemed similar to his predecessor. Last season, though they played an up-tempo style, he leaned on his post players, especially Henry Ellenson, who averaged 17.8 ppg and 9.7 rpg and was selected in the NBA Draft after one season. They ranked 286th in 3-pt attempt percentage and compounded that with a 33.9 3-pt percentage, 210th in the nation. Though the record was respectable (20-13 and 8-10 in the Big East), the Golden Eagles’ lack of a threat from the perimeter proved to be a major problem in achieving consistent success, especially considering their 106.9 points per 100 possessions rating, which was 116th best in the nation last year.
What is amazing about this Golden Eagles team this year though is they haven’t done much else different. Last year, they played up-tempo, got off quick shots, and passed around the ball well on the offensive end. That still is proving to be true in 2017. The main difference though? The Golden Eagles are shooting way more fucking three pointers, and not only are they shooting more, but they are shooting straight up fire as well.
Freshman Markus Howard is shooting an insane 55.1 percent from beyond the arc on 138 three-point attempts. Junior point guard Andrew Rowsey is shooting 45.5 percent on a 143 attempts from beyond the arc. Small ball four Sam Hauser is shooting 44.7 percent on 132 attempts. And senior Katin Reinhardt is shooting 38.3 percent on a 141 attempts. Average those together, and those four combined shooting percentage is 45.9 percent on an average of 138.5 3-pt attempts. Last season, only two players shot more than 100 three pointers: Ellenson, who shot 104 and shot a paltry 28.8 percent and then-sophomore Duane Wilson, who shot 156 3-pt attempts at a 34.6 percent clip (Wilson has seen his role diminished this season, as he has only attempted 46 3-pointers this year).
The emphasis on shots beyond the arc has helped, especially as of late, as the Golden Eagles closed out their Big East campaign with two big wins over Xavier on the road and Creighton at home. They scored 95 and 91 points, respectively, and the three-point shot was a big reason why. As you can see in the video below, their ability to move the ball and create open 3-point looks has been a crucial element to Marquette’s improved success on the overall offensive end. Big man Luke Fischer, while not the NBA prospect that Ellenson was, has been a key cog in opening up shots beyond the arc, as his ability to finish around the rim at a high rate (65.3 effective field goal rate) puts defenses in dilemmas. Focus on him, and you give up open looks. Let him go one on one in the block, and Fischer is going to get his. For most teams, how to game plan Fischer and the Marquette offense can be a lose-lose situation, and Xavier and Creighton were two victims of that this past week.
If there is one major achilles heel for this Marquette squad, it focuses squarely on the defensive end. Unlike his predecessor or in his first couple of years, the defensive rating of this year’s Marquette squad (102.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) is severely behind the offensive end in terms of ranking. The Golden Eagles ranked 132nd in defensive efficiency, much worse than the 88th ranking and 69th rankings in Wojo’s first two years in Milwaukee. The numbers appear a lot worse when one compares the defensive rating of this year’s squad to any in Buzz’s tenure, as the worst year he had with a team was in 2011, when they ranked 66th in defensive rating.
The massive difference between offensive and defensive ranking (in this case, a difference of 124 spots), has been an indicator of teams who get upset in the tournament. In 2014, Duke lost in the NCAA Tournament first round to Mercer, despite having the top offense in the nation according to adjusted offensive rating. Defense? They ranked 87th. In 2012, Missouri was 30-4 and fresh off a Big 12 Tournament championship. They had the top adjusted offensive rating in the country at 122.4 points per 100 possessions. However, they lost in the first round in a historic 2-15 upset to Norfolk State. Missouri’s defensive rating? Ranked 112th in the nation.
So, is Marquette a Final Four dark horse? Well, according to the numbers, it is unlikely. But should they be considered team that can do damage in the Tournament despite their defensive issues? Absolutely.
Marquette’s defensive issues and difference from the Buzz era in my mind stem from two issues: 1.) they don’t have the defensive talent as in years past and 2.) they switch up defenses a lot, putting more emphasis on taking risks to generate turnovers rather than get traditional stops.
In terms of the first issue, the reality of recruiting in college basketball is this: you always are going to have to give something up unless you’re a Duke, Kansas or UNC. Under Buzz, he went after athletes and defensive stoppers to fit into his system. Unfortunately, while they had defensive skills and elite athleticism, they were often unpolished on the offensive end when they arrived, and it was a growing process to get them to be at least average by the end of their college tenures. Even Butler and Crowder took a couple of years in the NBA before they became good offensive players.
Wojo on the other end has gone the opposite route. Instead of recruiting defensive-minded athletes, he has gone with more polished players, especially on the shooting end. The plus? The offensive efficiency and shooting has improved dramatically. The negative? They don’t have the kind of athleticism or size to matchup defensively like Marquette squads during the Buzz era.
Which leads to the second point: in order to mask these defensive issues, Wojo mixes it up a lot on the defensive end. It is quite common to see Marquette switch between different zone looks as well as man-to-man to make up for their lack of overall size (they rank 192nd in the nation in overall height) and athleticism. The reliance of different looks (the strategy of “quantity” perhaps rather than “quality” when it comes to defensive strategy) has led to defensive breakdowns easy buckets at times, which you will see in the highlights below from their game against Villanova, where Marquette got burned on occasion by a crisp passing, quick Villanova team. The numbers highlight the Golden Eagles’ lapses on defense: they rank 237 in effective field goal percentage allowed, 272nd in 3 point percentage allowed, and 220th in 2-pt percentage allowed.
But, as mediocre as the defensive numbers look, the strategy pays off in one way: steals. The Golden Eagles’ steal rate ranks 43rd in the nation, and is a big reason why their defense stays average instead of horrible, like all their other metrics suggest. Marquette likes to get live ball turnovers, push things in the full court, and get quick shots off these changes in possession, which are often 3-pointers. It’s an interesting strategy, because when the emphasis on stealing the ball pays off (like it did against Creighton when they got 10 steals in their regular season finale), it can lead to big scores and wins, because it makes up for the mismatches Marquette often gives up against bigger or more athletic teams. When it doesn’t, it can lead to some of the let down losses they have had this year such as being swept by Providence and losing to St. John’s at MSG.
Year three under Wojo could be seen as a satisfying season for Marquette fans, alums and admin alike. Barring a first round upset in the Big East tourney, and some other weird things going on in other conference tourney, Marquette should at least make the tournament as a first four. Irregardless of the tournament appearance though, the turnaround in playing style has been something to behold in Milwaukee. Wojo has brought a fast, exciting brand of basketball, and considering the stiff competition from the Badgers in Madison and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, the kind of interest Marquette is generating is nothing to shrug at. Add that with the fact that this team is young (193rd in the nation in experience), and it further shows the progress that Wojo had made with a Golden Eagles program that went through a bit of a lull for a couple of years after Buzz left Milwaukee for Blacksburg.
Now, how long Wojo will stay at Marquette? Who knows. I guess that depends on Coach K. But let’s enjoy this three-point heavy, fast-paced, high-risk defensive style of play in upper Midwest for as long as we can.