Adjusting expectations (and other fun stuff)

Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches

If you’ve come to Paint Touches in the last 4 months expecting new Marquette content and insight and info on what was basically a completely new team, you’ve been sorely disappointed to find the site barren.

I apologize for that, but between life, work, and low expectations, it kept bugging me but not enough to do anything about it. However, after 3 straight victories over high major opponents, even my wife was on my case about putting pen to paper. So here we are.

And to be fair, everything I would have written would have been patently wrong.

I posted a poll on Twitter before Marquette’s first game trying to set a baseline for what people’s expectations were, and a vast majority was much more optimistic than I was.

I’ll save you the dozens of Tweets spelling it out, but basically, even though I was fairly confident Shaka Smart could instill a good to very good defense with this core, I didn’t think roster had enough shooting or ball handling to run Nevada Smith’s pick and roll heavy offense.

It’s never felt so good to be so wrong.

But now what? Is this an NCAA Tournament team? How high should the expectations rise? Are we setting ourselves up for disappointment?

I don’t have good answers, and I don’t trust anyone who says they do. This team has clearly overperformed in terms of results, as the metrics based sites still have Marquette struggling the rest of the season. KenPom ranks MU as the 71st best team, 8th in the Big East with a sub-500 conference record. TRank has MU at no. 81, 8th in the Big East and with an 8-12 conference record.

Obviously the stats are underestimating this team. Marquette has won as an 8.5, 3.5 and 5.5 point underdog this week. It will most likely be an underdog against the Bonnies as well. So I’m not terribly concerned at the low regard afforded to this team by the computers just yet. But let’s focus on what we do know.

This team can get good shots

My biggest concern about the “Dunks and 3s or GTFO” offense Marquette would run is that the 3s were a particular weak point. As of Monday, that concern was 100% valid, as it was only shooting 27% on pretty high volume. However, there was a GIANT caveat in the form of the NBA 3-point line that I felt was artificially weighing down the team average.

A 2-game sample in Charleston with a 43% connection rate isn’t enough to declare Marquette an elite shooting team, but what I do think we can extrapolate is that this team can create really good looks from the arc. Per Synergy, it’s taken 63 unguarded jumpers this season, with 30 coming in the past 2 games alone. With a shorter average distance (and a bit of shot luck) it has connected on 11 of those 30, averaging 1.1 PPP.

But don’t take my limited small sample as proof. The site ShotQuality, which measures hundreds of variables to determine the value of a given shot in a game, currently ranks Marquette as the 2nd best offense in the Big East in terms of quality of shot and 23rd best in the country. If Marquette can continue to get high value looks, the offensive floor goes way up, even when the shots don’t always fall.

And with Kam Jones finding his stroke and Greg Elliott coming back from suspension, the number of shooters you can’t leave open is spreading the floor for finishes at the rim.

The core is legit

When Darryl Morsell announced he was transferring in, I was happy a very young backcourt would get a perfect model of defensive intensity to practice with day in and day out. What I did not know (and I don’t think anyone can really say with certainty they did know) is that Morsell would be an offensive stalwart. He had only cracked an ORtg of 100 once in 4 years at Maryland, and was under a 30% shooter from 3 over that time.

But he’s been nothing short of amazing offensively through 5 games. It’s not just the four 20-point games, it’s the recognition when his team is faltering, and stepping up to take (and make) clutch buckets. He probably won’t finish the season with an ORtg over 120 like his current 120.9 shows, and probably will fall back down to Earth from distance from his 52% accuracy rate, but he can get to the rim against any opponent and has shown a sweet mid-range pull up is in his arsenal. He’s real and he’s spectacular.

Justin Lewis was my choice for breakout player, so I did have elevated expectations for him, and he’s lived up to the billing. He’s played the most minutes on the team (82%) and boasts an ORtg of 109.7 to date, almost 16 points over where he finished last season.

The key to his efficiency will continue to rely on maintaining an average percentage from 3. He doesn’t have to always create off the bounce, but hitting over 40% of his wide open treys changes the complexion of the offense. Defenses can’t sag nearly as much and Lewis will find more success penetrating or pulling up for his money middy.

In what has come as a shock to me, Tyler Kolek has become the 3rd amigo. We saw Shaka play up Kolek’s potential at the Big East media day, but he’s taken the white on white Diener comparisons from pathetic to plausible. And don’t take my word for it.

Specifically, despite average athleticism, Kolek can break down a defense off the dribble and has a great feel for where teammates are to put them in great position to score, assisting on 36.4% of possession he’s on the floor. Since 2003, only 4 Marquette players have finished a season with an assist rate over 30% playing a minimum of 60% of minutes: Junior Cadougan (1), Dominic James (3), Dwyane Wade (1) and, you guessed it Diener (2).

There’s a long way to go in this season, so there’s no guarantee Kolek can join that fairly elite company, but the eye test is just bursting with joy seeing the way he can carve up a defense like West Virginia’s with ease.

And not to overplay the Diener angle, but this is 100% something we’d see from him.

These 3 players form a foundation from which Shaka can mix and match the other 2 spots depending on opponents and in-game hot hands.

Violence is a lifestyle

When Shaka redecorated Kasten Gym where MU practices, one of the phrases he put in huge letters on the wall was “violence.” It’s a bit menacing without context, but it is his vision of how his team should play. Not violent as in Bad Boys Pistons, but aggressive and tenacious.

That defensive mentality showed up in the upset of Illinois, forcing 26 turnovers and destroying one of the best PGs in the country in Andre Curbelo. You see the havoc Shaka wants to impose on teams, and even if it isn’t always that successful, opponents know they are in for a fight when they line up against this Marquette team.

But to me, violence isn’t just a defensive mentality. It’s the confidence to keep shooting after starting the season 4-18 from distance like Kam Jones. It’s the belief that a 12-point deficit isn’t a death knell, as 3 straight double digit comebacks have shown.

Most of all, it’s a culture that permeates in every aspect on and off the court. Winning will always draw in fans you haven’t heard from in a while, but the entire fanbase is as energized as I’ve seen it since at least February 2019, probably longer.

Is Marquette back?

For this and more, I think it’s fair to reset expectations a bit. MU has now banked 3 quality wins that will lessen the need for a winning record in Big East play. Take care of business against the remaining cupcakes, take 1 or 2 from the remaining 4 high quality games (Bonnies, UW, KState, UCLA) and then going 9-9, maybe 8-10 will set you up for a bubble berth.

I’m still of the mind that an NIT appearance would signal a positive season, with the NCAA being a stretch goal, but am much more bullish on postseason odds then just 48 hours ago.

But most importantly, I think that’s secondary at the moment. What matters more is that the fanbase is engaged, the players are hungry, and national media is taking notice. There may be some heat of the moment overreaction, but MU is relevant in a way it struggled to be even as it was racking up wins in 2019. All of that is to say…

Marquette is back.

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