Leaning into the February fade

One of the most telling ways Marquette fans should have known times had changed was when head coach Shaka Smart not only addressed the late season “collapse” from 2022, but made clear in interview after interview that they spent a good part of the Spring and Summer not only analyzing the on court dip in performance, but the mental aspect with each player as well.

As any Marquette fan will tell you, Februaries haven’t been kind to the Blue and Gold for, well, at least a decade. And although that the stats don’t necessary back that up, the on court results spoke loud and clear. When the going got tough, Marquette hadn’t been tough enough to withstand it, and got going in the opposite direction.

So to hear Shaka address the bogeyman head on, and admit his team needed to be playing better ball as the clock ticked closer to March was a very welcome sign of accountability.

Of course it’s all well and good to talk about not fading in February. It’s another to live it.

Avoidance Goals

After taking DePaul to the woodshed, knowing that the dreaded month of February was now here, Shaka started to drill every interview with this idea of approach goals vs avoidance goals.

Here he was on the post-game radio show after beating DePaul.

And here he was again after beating Butler, by a closer than expected margin.

It’s easy to eye roll a lot of what Shaka speaks about because it’s very much from a coach speak handbook. Culture. Embracing Pressure. Playing for Each Other.

When you win, you looks great and everyone loves it. When you don’t, those same people are going to say to stick to the basketball and leave the inspiration to the grifting Preachers of the world.

But like Armen above, this particular theory, that players need to be playing for something rather than trying to prevent the bad from happening resonated deeply. You could see at times in games against Butler or Nova or UConn that Marquette’s players were playing with a timidity that we hadn’t seen before. Being the hunted, they were now trying not to make the mistake, rather than playing to make the right play. I wrote at length about that lack of aggressiveness.

Going into Tuesday night’s title bout with Creighton, if you isolated TRank’s stats just for the month of February, Marquette was only playing like the 58th best team in the country, with a sub-100 offense. The results were still rolling in, but it was difficult to say with confidence that this was the best team in the conference.

The Final Boss

I am not one to exaggerate, but I had no hope Marquette would win against Creighton. The analyst in me said it was a bad matchup, on the road, against a team that was playing as a top-10 team for over a month now. The fan in me was already dreading the collapse narratives, as the chance to seal the Big East title race would slip by once again.

The biggest reason was the fact Tyler Kolek’s immense impact could be muted with a big like Ryan Kalkbrenner that could drop back into the paint off P&R coverage and not allow easy access to the rim or the passing lanes.

So it’s only fitting that when the moment seemed bleakest, with the score tied, a 10-point lead evaporated, and no field goals in almost 8 minutes, Marquette’s leader took the ball right at Kalkbrenner and scored the most important basket for Marquette since Vander Blue’s game winner against Davidson. And when Creighton tied it back up with under a minute to go, Kolek went ahead and did it once more.

Shaka described him as playing with a lot of nuts after the game, but using his previous terminology, this was the epitome of an approach goal. Kolek went out to try and win the game. He wasn’t avoiding a miss or letting someone else do the hard work. The ultimate pass-first point guard put the cape on himself and beat back a decade’s worth of demons with those two possessions.


Of course, that win over Creighton was about a lot more than those two plays. I’ll be reading and listening and watching a ton of content the next few days breaking it all down, but I felt putting it in this context was imperative.

The Xavier victory personified this team’s grit and ability to grind a win even when most of the team didn’t have “it.” The Creighton win proved without a shadow of a doubt there is no fade in this team.

The offense may not be as pretty. The margin of victory not as gaudy. But the team is not going away quietly no matter what the calendar says.

And now, with that win over Creighton, the Big East runs through Milwaukee. Marquette will have any tiebreaker with Creighton or Providence, the two teams closest in the standings. If Providence loses against UConn on Wednesday, Marquette can clinch a share of the Big East at home against DePaul. If Providence wins, Marquette can clinch a share of the title at Butler, should they hold serve against the Blue Demons.

And looking past February, March plans just got a lot grander after tonight. That’s the kind of victory that will put Marquette on the 3 seed, and give them a much better chance of making a run into the hallowed territory like the Elite 8 and beyond.

But that’s for another post.

What matters today is that if you were still waiting for the bottom to drop out on this squad, you might as well call it a season. This team has taken every doubter (myself included) and proved them wrong.

February Fade? In the immortal words of the potential Big East Player of the year: “F*** Em”.

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Categories: Analysis


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One Comment on “Leaning into the February fade”

  1. Tom
    February 22, 2023 at 10:16 am #

    Great analysis. This team is special. This coach is special. Hopefully, this very exciting season marks a great new era for Marquette basketball.

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