Last week, I wrote with complete confidence that Marquette was a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happened in the Big East Tournament.
7 days, 40 minutes and 1 loss later, I’m still writing with complete confidence that Marquette is a lock to make the Tournament. This time, there are no caveats about bid thieves or miracle runs. Marquette is in. Period.
Even though Marquette didn’t do itself any favors by bowing out in its only game this week against Seton Hall, almost everything else that needed to happen to secure a bid happened. Of the 53 games with bubble or RPI implications, 37 went Marquette’s way. Bid thieves were just nowhere to be found. None of the 6 “Power Conferences” had or will have a bid thief. The AAC, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Conference USA all had the favorite win, or at least lose to a team with bubble aspirations at a minimum. Only the A-10 didn’t go Marquette’s way, and it still might if Rhode Island loses to VCU.
College basketball is usually the place where the unexpected becomes the ordinary, as Twitter’s resident cliche factory Jon Rothstein likes to say. But this conference tournament season, the unexpected has been nowhere to be found. That, along with almost no deep runs from teams behind in the bracketmatrix has all but guaranteed Marquette a spot in the field, and more than likely a trip avoiding Dayton.
But I want to step back a bit, because in a few hours when Marquette’s name is called and #mubb Twitter lights up in euphoria, it will be easy to forget what exactly the journey to the Tourney entailed.
It’s not just about this year, though I could surely write thousands of words about this roller coaster of a season. This is about a program that experienced a run of success not seen since the 70s and followed it up with the three worst consecutive seasons since the 80s. It is about a fanbase that was as close to giving up as it had been in my lifetime. It is about a group of players that stuck through some tough cards and is getting to cash chips in at the end of the night.
When Tom Crean left Marquette, his successor inherited a top-15 team laden with seniors and impact players. Even when the highly rated freshmen like Tyshawn Taylor, Nick Williams and Scott Christopherson reneged on their commitment and fled for other pastures, along with sophomore Trevor Mbakwe, the impact on the program wasn’t immediate. Sure, the future was a lot less bright, but it did not impact the transition.
When Buzz Williams left Marquette, his successor inherited a disappointing team full of underachieving, formerly rated players who had never produced at the college level. When highly rated freshmen like Ahmed Hill and Marial Shayok reneged on their commitment and fled for other pastures, the impact on the program was immediate. When possible building blocks like Todd Mayo and Deonte Burton eventually left the team, there were barely enough bodies left with which to scrimmage.
No one expected much success from that 2015 team, but even with the addition of grad transfer Matt Carlino, Marquette finished Big East play losing 10 if its last 12 games. The only thing keeping fans going was the promise of top-10 talent Henry Ellenson, who had committed and given Marquette its first 5-star since Doc Rivers.
But even with Henry (and a pair of other promising freshmen), there just wasn’t enough on the team to bring stability, losing at home to DePaul and killing the dim hopes they had at postseason play. There was no real discernible identity other than feeding the future NBA player, and when he left for the NBA, Marquette was once again left with more questions than answers.
So when the 2017 season rolled around, one of the most common questions I got was about the temperature of Wojo’s seat. This wasn’t just crazy fans with unrealistic expectations. This was knowledgeable and respected followers who understood the cupboard was pillaged for him, but still weren’t sure Wojo could cut it at this level.
My response was always the same. Wojo will be the coach in 2018 no matter what. He had the full backing of the administration, had proven he could recruit, and was going to be given every opportunity to succeed, Twitter experts be damned. However, should he miss the postseason (NIT/NCAAs) this year, you bet that seat was going from 0 to 100. Marquette was going to be patient with its investment, but at some point, that investment was going to have to start yielding tangible results.
And when you see how the season played out, you get an even better understanding of why that patience was needed. The best four shooters on the team weren’t on the team last season (Rowsey was redshirting). The fact that Marquette is recording its best offensive season in the KenPom era isn’t some fluke. It isn’t JJJ finding 6th gear or Duane living up to his freshman promise. No, the bread and butter of this season is a vision of what Wojo wants, heady players who can stroke it from just about anywhere on the court.
If the reason behind two postseason-less years was the Wojo didn’t have his kind of team year, it matters that this team looks nothing like the previous 2. All but 3 players were recruited by Wojo and this staff. Though Duane, Luke, and JJJ still hold big roles, it is the newer recruits that have altered the way the game is played at the Bradley Center.
In short: the patience paid off.
The difference between making the tournament and missing it is pretty slim. If you switch the results of a couple games this year (beat St. John’s and Providence but lose to Nova and Georgia/Vandy), Marquette might be on the outside looking in. The number of wins would the same. The general positive trajectory of the team would be unchanged. But this column, and the general perception around this team, would be much different.
So in a way, it is silly to say that making the NCAAs is a changing point in Wojo’s tenure. But life is full of arbitrary, unfair measuring sticks, and this particular one is a big one for any head coach at the high major level.
When Marquette’s name flashes on that CBS screen and enters the conscience of millions of viewers for the first time in 4 years, everything will change. Wojo won’t be the coach who can do it, he will become the coach who has done it. His way.
No matter who Marquette has to play or how many games they end up playing, this season can be considered a success. It is not the endpoint, far from it, but it’s tangible evidence that Marquette is on the right path. Progress is what what most were asking for. Progress is what they got.