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Should Marquette Redshirt Somebody?

Sacar Anim

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

It may be a more serious question than you might think. For what feels like the first time in forever, Marquette started practice with all 13 of its scholarships being utilized by high major worthy players with no one apparently thinking about transferring (though that can change in an instant, see Cheatham, Haanif). Koby McEwen will have to take a mandatory redshirt year after transferring from Utah State, leaving the Golden Eagles with 12 active scholarship players. This gives Wojo the very good problem of having to manage minutes between a dozen worthy players. This is not something that Coach has had to handle since taking over the big chair and will be a test of his abilities. How does he maximize the team’s effectiveness while also keeping so many worthy players happy with their roles?

Let’s state the obvious first. Wojo is not going to nor should he run a 12-man rotation. While there is benefits to keeping players fresh, there is simply no justification for giving your 11th and 12th best players consistent minutes. Unless there is foul trouble, ten high major basketball players should be able take on 200 minutes of basketball in a night without losing effectiveness. Barring transfers or injuries, at least two players on the roster are going to be regulated to garbage minutes. It could be even more if Wojo decides to tighten the rotation, which he should do if it will help the team win.
So how do you keep player 11 and player 12 happy with their role, knowing that they could be getting big minutes at other quality progams?

Winning certainly helps. It’s a lot easier to be a benchwarmer on a team competing for conference championships and top seeds. If you believe most of the talking heads out there, Marquette should finish in the top three of the Big East and be comfortably inside the bubble come Selection Sunday. Still, back of the rotation players from good teams transfer all the time. Usually, they go to lesser programs but often they develop into players that could have been impact players on their original team. Former Duke Blue Devil/SMU Mustang Semi Olejeye comes to mind.

An option for managing a large and talented roster is to simply remove a player from the equation by giving them a redshirt. Redshirt years come with a lot of benefit to both the player and program. It preserves a year of eligibility for the player so rather than spending on a season sitting on the bench, the player can spend more of their eligibility playing meaningful minutes. It also gives the player a year with lessened time commitments and expectations. Players often use redshirt years to get ahead academically. This way, if the player doesn’t end up earning playing time after the redshirt, they can put themselves in position to take advantage of the grad transfer rule (which could be a risk for the program).

Programs will sometimes place players on redshirt when they need to focus on their physical development (Creighton’s Justin Patton was a good example of this). Redshirted players don’t need to focus as much on scouting other teams, watching film, and learning the playbook so teams will often put them on practice regiments focused on building strength and speed.

The downside of a redshirt for a player is the obvious fact that they must spend an entire year with no playing time. No player wants to believe that they are one of the last players in the rotation, and when that scenario plays out, it may be easier to seek greener pastures. Even when a redshirt would be the best thing for a program, many players are not open to it, and the damage it can cause to the player/coach relationship may not be worth it. The decision to give a player a redshirt should always be discussed with the player first, and while it is ultimately the coach’s decision, it’s best to have the player’s consent.

In this writer’s opinion, the redshirt is criminally underused in basketball. Most programs use at least 11 of their 13 scholarships, meaning they have players who will likely be stuck riding the pine but many don’t take advantage of redshirts, especially at the high major level. To Wojo’s credit, he has used a non-transfer redshirt in each of the last two seasons. Sacar Anim took a redshirt going into his sophomore year after a non-productive freshman year. The year off worked like gangbusters as he found himself with a starting role in his first year back.

Ike Eke took the redshirt last season and we have yet to see whether or not he benefitted from it. His redshirt was partially so he could develop but he was also dealing with a back injury that required treatment. With the boatload of talent returning to Milwaukee this season, redshirting one of the 12 active players seems to make a lot of sense. It will help solve the playing time concern and give Marquette another year of a quality player. If something goes sideways, say a player unexpectedly gets injured, the redshirt can always be burned midseason.

That leaves the million-dollar question. If Wojo were to redshirt a player, who would it be?

To answer this question, we need to go through a process of elimination. First, we must eliminate all the players who have already used their redshirt season. As mentioned previously, both Anim and Eke have already taken redshirts. Joining them are Ed Morrow who took a mandatory redshirt after his transfer and Joey Hauser who graduated high school early and enrolled last January as a redshirt. Now, we have to eliminate the studs. Unless there is an injury (frantically searches for wood to knock), we can safely assume that neither Markus Howard nor Sam Hauser will be taking a redshirt now or ever.

Next, we need to eliminate players at positions lacking depth. While positionless basketball is all the rage, Wojo is not going to stash either of his only two centers on the bench so that rules out Matt Heldt and Theo John. Howard will play a lot of PG this season, but you need at least two, preferably three players who can play that position. Chartouny is certainly safe and while he hasn’t played a lot of point guard, Greg Elliott is also needed for depth at the point.

If you’re keeping track at home, that leaves us with two players. The first, I am going to go ahead and write off myself. There’s an argument for Brendan Bailey redshirting if the staff feels like he’s not ready after his Mormon mission, but I don’t see Wojo asking a 21-year-old freshman to extend his stay in college by another year. Besides, if you believe some program insiders and talking heads, Bailey has been one of the best players in practice. So, if it is not Bailey then that leaves, Mr. Jamal Cain.

Before we get any further, let me state with absolute and 100% certainty that I do not think Cain would be a good redshirt candidate because he is a bad player. In fact, the reason I think he should redshirt is because I believe he has the potential to be an absolute monster. He has the athleticism, the wingspan, and the shooting touch that you just can’t teach. He was a very effective contributor off the bench last season, especially towards the end. He has the upside, with some fine tuning and a little work on his body, he could be an all-conference type player.

Standing 6’7” with a wingspan measuring 7’1”, Cain has the look of an NBA shooting guard. He has the range, has shown some flashes of driving ability, and that coveted length that NBA GMs are all gaga over these days. In 17 minutes a game, Cain put up 4.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 0.8 steals per game while playing almost exclusively at the 3 position. That may not seem like the sexiest stat line, but advanced stats reveal a few gems. Most obvious is that Cain shot a blistering 47.3% from beyond the arc, second only to the incomparable Sam Hauser. This three-point shooting prowess gave him the third highest eFG% on the team behind Hauser and the Nightmare from Neenah.

He hit the boards surprisingly well for a skinny wing, especially on the defensive end. His rebounding% was tied with Theo John for second best amongst the every day players. Finally, his disruption ability was among the best on the roster. He and fellow true freshman Greg Elliott posted steal%s of 2.7, tying them for the title of top thief. Markus was in third place and almost a whole percentage below them at 1.8%. All of these hidden numbers hint at the great potential within Cain, just waiting to be released.

So, if there is so much potential waiting to be released, why redshirt Cain? The “we have too many players to go around” argument is not a good enough reason on its own. There has to be aspects of his game that you think a redshirt could improve. One of the first things you notice about Cain is his height, his length, and just how much of a string bean he is. Standing 6’7” but only weighing in at 195 lbs limits his versatility as a player. He can jump out of the gym and is arguably the best athlete on team, but he isn’t strong enough to play the forward position and he isn’t laterally quick enough to play the 2G position effectively. This limits him to playing on the wing, where he was very effective, but he could be so much more.

A year spent working on his body, building speed and strength could do wonders for his game. It would help him be a stronger defender, outwork opponents on the boards, and most importantly, increase his ability to get to the hoop and finish. Last season he shot the lights out from three but only scored 24 points when attacking the rim in the half court and it took him 40 attempts to get there.

Now it is true that there are some frames you just can’t hang more muscle on. Cain will never be as jacked as say Ed Morrow despite being the same height. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to be, even 10 lbs more could be transformative for his game. I have long thought that the best player comp for Cain is Nova’s Mikal Bridges. Both arrived on campus standing 6’7”, weighing in around 180 lbs, with arms that go on for days. Even their ESPN scouting reports looked eerily similar. By the time Bridges graduated, he had worked his way up to 210 lbs, adding 30 lbs of good weight to his frame. He recently got drafted in the lottery by his hometown 76ers (before getting traded to the Suns because Philly just had to ruin a good story) after his redshirt junior year. A redshirt year was part of his journey from skinny freshman to lottery pick.

Now, I am not guaranteeing that Cain will become a lottery pick if he redshirts, but I do think he has similar potential if given the time to reach it. He is already halfway to the 30 lbs of good weight gain that Bridges achieved. If he can push himself to get north of 200 lbs while increasing his lateral quickness, it would allow him to play his game on entire other level.

With his speed, height, and wingspan, Cain looks the part of a defensive stopper. Unfortunately, the stats from last season don’t back up that assertion. 178 defensive possessions ended with Cain’s assignment. In those 178 possessions, opponents scored 167 points for a points per possession allowed (dPPP) of .938. That number puts him in the 28th percentile of all Division One players, making him a well below average on ball defender. A caveat, defense is a team sport so having poor defenders for teammates will bring your personal numbers down and there were plenty of poor defenders in blue and gold last season. That number rated sixth among Marquette’s scholarship players.

As we mentioned earlier, he has very good disruption ability. His long arms helped him lead the team (along with Elliott) in steal%. But if he didn’t get the steal, he often gave up a bucket instead. Breaking his numbers down further, Cain was pretty good at defending jumpshooters, only allowing 57 points in 67 possessions. No surprises there with his Mr. Fantastic arms. Where he got taken is on screen plays and isolation. The 21 times that Cain’s man ran him off a screen, 30 points were scored for a dPPP of 1.429. In the 20 times that Cain’s assignment tried to take him in isolation, 20 points were scored for a dPPP of 1. That number was in the bottom 20% of all Division 1 players. Off screens? Bottom 5%.

Now that was a lot of numbers. The tale that they tell is that while Cain has that coveted wingspan, he lacks strength and defensive awareness. He is not strong enough to fight through screens or keep ballhandlers from bullying him to the rim. He doesn’t have the awareness to avoid those screens or anticipate where his man is trying to take him. The good news is, both of these things can be improved with time. Strength is added in the gym and awareness comes with repetition, the kind that can be gained with a dedicated training regiment for a redshirt year.

The last and possible most important reason to consider a redshirt is building experience and confidence. It has been well documented that the speed of college ball takes getting used to and many players experience a long adjustment period. Cain was the youngest player on the team last season and even as a sophomore, he is still the second youngest scholarship player. He’s only four months older than Joey Hauser. It’s not a stretch to say that this may mean that he needs a little bit more time to truly come into his own.

Possible evidence of this could be Cain’s odd shooting splits. He is the only player that I have ever seen with over 50 three-point attempts who shot almost the same percentage from three (47.3%) that he did from the charity stripe (47.8%). It could be nothing, or it could mean that in high pressure situations like free throws that Cain is susceptible to nerves (as all players are at some level). Wojo has said consistently that in order to win in the Big East you need to get old and stay old. A redshirt is just another tool that helps the team do just that.

I was hesitant to write this article because I don’t want the reader to walk away with the message of “Paint Touches thinks Cain sucks so much that he should redshirt.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. This suggestion is all about where the roster has depth and a strong belief that Cain has monstrous potential that he just needs time to reach. Mr. Cain, if you somehow end up reading this (huge fan, by the way), please know that I am looking forward to your NBA career. I truly believe you are the current player with the best chance to make his mark at the pro level. Marquette has recently had a couple of alumni make surprise appearances in the NBA.

No Marquette fan saw Dwight Buycks or Jamil Wilson making the Association when they graduated, but the potential was there. Neither is making an All-Star roster anytime soon, but they have both had bright moments on the biggest stage. Imagine if they had reached the levels they are playing at now while they were still donning blue and gold. They already helped the team to Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight so it’s not a stretch to say that Marquette may have had a new banner or two to hang in the Fiserv Forum. A redshirt doesn’t guarantee that Cain reaches his potential while on campus, but it does buy him some more time.

There it is, 2,600 some words on why Wojo should use a redshirt and why it should be on Jamal Cain. I am no basketball coach (though I do play one from my armchair) but I see a lot of potential benefits and little downside for the program. Again, if the team struggles or there is an injury you can always burn the redshirt midway through the season. Of course, this is all dependent on the man himself. Wojo knows better than the bum writing this on which buttons to press with what player. If a redshirt is going to break trust, destroy confidence, or even encourage a transfer, then you don’t play that card.

While it is ultimately the coach’s decision, a redshirt shouldn’t be used without the player’s consent. It also shouldn’t be used if the player is already making the progress that we hope will come with a redshirt. If Cain has busted his butt and already elevated his game than a redshirt is unnecessary. If he is going to be one of the top eight guys in the rotation than he should play. But if Bailey is ahead of him on the depth chart, and he’s gonna be more like the ninth or tenth guy, then maybe the redshirt is a good idea.

Either way, it’s nice to be at a point where the roster is so good that we can suggest redshirting a guy as talented as Jamal Cain and not have it be the most outrageous idea ever.

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Categories: Analysis, Home, Offseason

Author:Ryan Jackson

Texas A&M Professional, Marquette Fantatic

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