At one point during the first half of Iowa’s dismemberment of Marquette, my wife came back from putting our daughter to bed and saw the Hawkeye lead had ballooned to 23. Seeing the distraught look on my face, she turned to me and said “It’s still not as bad as that Vanderbilt game.”
Phrases like these are no solace in the midst of a complete embarrassment, but tend to serve as better reference points after a good night’s sleep. Thinking about it this morning, it’s still not coming close to resonating.
I was a senior at the time, showing off the wonder that is Marquette basketball to my then fiance, now wife. It was the first time in three years she had gotten to go to a game. Marquette came in at 11-1, one of the best teams in the country boasting one of the best senior duos in the country in Jae Crowder and DJO. All this is to say, we couldn’t be more amped.
And then the Commodores ran roughshod up and down the Bradley Center, leading 31-8 at the under-8 media timeout and stifling any sort of momentum before it could take root. The student section cleared out. The sweater vests followed suit and the majority of the second half was played at half speed.
Given the hype of the game, the quality of the team, and the emotion of my situation, it was hard to breathe. Here was a team with visions of grandeur, laying brick after brick in front of me. The world was ending.
And then it wasn’t.
Marquette went on to finish 14-4 in the Big East, good for second place, it’s best finish up to that point. Crowder won Big East Player of the Year. The team took out BYU and Murray State in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. After all of the hand-wringing in December, it turned out to be a blip on the radar.
Which brings us to Thursday’s game. It was awful to witness from start to finish, but it was just one game in a long season, surely all of this panic on forums and social media is unwarranted, much like mine was three years ago.
Maybe, but I’m not so sure.
For starters, that 2011-’12 team was a proven commodity. It was coming off a Sweet 16 and had two seniors that were some of the best in the league, if not the country. This wasn’t the first test of the season, either. The team had throttled Mississippi, won at Wisconsin and beaten Washington in Madison Square Garden. At 11-1, there were no questions as to whether or not the team would be good, simply HOW good.
This team is nothing but questions. It lost against a good, veteran mid-major in Belmont, which was understandable on opening night. However, the win against IUPUI was baffling. Any team that needs overtime to beat a low-major at home deserves closer scrutiny. Well, if that scrutiny came against Iowa, there’s no question why there’s a run on the market. There is no reference point to fall back on. No win to highlight. No proof that this was just a blip.
There’s not even a “look at last year” to fall back on as was the case in the Vanderbilt game (or even the Florida and Green Bay games the next year). Last season’s team wasn’t talented or deep enough to close out games, relied heavily on a graduate transfer, and was beaten soundly at home by Omaha to go along with a few other non-conference scares.
Still, last year there wasn’t this sense of dread that permeates the #mubb air right now. It was Wojo’s first season. The talent level was indeed low and there was a bevy of in-season transfers to deplete the depth chart. There was a general sense that despite how difficult the games are to watch, it will be well worth it in the years to come.
And there was Henry.
Landing Henry Ellenson might have been the best and worst thing to happen to Steve Wojciechowski as head coach of Marquette. The best because Henry is a legitimate lottery prospect who has the natural talent and physical gifts to be a transcendent player on this level, even as a freshman. The worst because it artificially accelerated the rebuilding timeline.
All parties understood that the youth and inexperience at every single position would make for a steep learning curve early on. When your two options at point guard are both true freshman, and the entire starting lineup has less than 5 seasons of combined experience, there will be plenty of miscues. The bevy of careless turnovers are the clear result of this.
The defense is in shambles most possessions, misplaying pick and rolls consistently and having to scramble to make up for it, leading to open shots all over the court. Marquette’s opponents are shooting 37.5% from beyond the arc, which would be the worst showing since at least 2001, which is as far back as KenPom goes.
But this isn’t about numbers. It’s about feelings. Henry is a consensus lottery prospect among the national media and draft analysts alike. He will stay at Marquette as long as he wants and have a nice paycheck awaiting on the other side. If he is indeed a one and done, there is a sense Marquette is wasting a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The team looks awful right now, nobody is arguing that. But the people already calling for Wojo’s head, and the PT Twitter mentions are full of them, have lost all sense of perspective. As much as I loathe it, the bevy of cupcakes in the non-conference schedule is concrete proof the staff expected this.
This is not a win-now year, but it is probably the only one with Henry. This dichotomy has driven people to panic three games into the season. Well, that and the barrage of bricked threes.
Marquette will look better as the season progresses, but taking these early results as any indication, the preseason consensus of a verifiable bubble team was much too optimistic. This year is still a rebuild, no matter how good Ellenson might be.
That’s more painful than any 30-point loss.