Tomorrow the South Carolina Gamecocks will embark on an unfamiliar journey when they play in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A tournament win would be South Carolina’s first since 1973 and would catapult not only Frank Martin but Sindarious Thornwell into a special place in South Carolina basketball history.
Ahead of tomorrow’s game I chatted with Andrew Fleck of SB Nation’s Marquette Golden Eagles blog Anonymous Eagle. Appropriate for a school in Milwaukee, we gave Andrew a six pack of questions to fill us in on who exactly Marquette is.
1) For a school with considerably more basketball history than South Carolina, how do you compare this season with those in Marquette's past? Y’all have a pretty decent history of successful basketball.
Wildly frustrating and yet, very rewarding.
Prior to this season, Marquette's last three NCAA tournament appearances resulted in two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight. Those were the last three years of an eight year run of tourney bids, and for the most part, all of those teams were pretty solid locks to get to the tournament by the time Valentine's Day rolled around on the calendar, or at the very least by the time the calendar flipped to March.
You can't say the same thing about this team. After getting through the non-conference schedule with a odd variety of results against high major teams, Marquette opened up Big East play with a surprising 5-3 start when a 3-5 start would have been largely respectable. That 5-3 open was capped off by a 17 point rally to defeat #1 ranked Villanova for the first regular season victory over a #1 ranked team in program history.
And then they lost four of their next five games.
That put the postseason in doubt again, but the team bounced back, won four of their final five regular season games with the wins coming in mostly easy fashion and managed to secure this at-large bid for the first postseason appearance in four years.
A bit of a white knuckle ride to get here, but it's a fun team to watch when they're clicking.
2) As a fan, how would you describe Marquette basketball to someone who might not even know what state the school is in?
Well, let's start with the last part first. Marquette is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not Marquette, Michigan. This is not intended as a slight to you or South Carolina fans in general, as most Marquette fans and alumni can probably tell you a story about someone thinking the school is in the Upper Peninsula.
Marquette alumni view the men's basketball program as the pride and joy of their university, and for good reason. With this at-large bid to the tournament, MU now ranks 12th all-time in NCAA tournament appearances. While a lot of Marquette's basketball history lies with the Al McGuire era in the 1960s and 1970s, including the program's lone national championship, we've seen a renaissance of MU hoops since the turn of the century. Al took the team to nine NCAA tournaments in his 13 seasons, but under the guidance of Tom Crean and Buzz Williams, MU had a run of 12 NCAA tournament appearances in 14 seasons.
As a result of the legacy of Al McGuire, MU fans embrace a role as a bit of a rebellious program. Not in terms of skirting NCAA rules, but in terms of thumbing our nose at the NCAA. This is the 100th season of Marquette basketball, and the centennial celebration uniforms that the team is wearing pays homage to multiple kits that the team has worn over the years, including not one, but two designs from the McGuire years that the NCAA has since outlawed.
There's also the story of the 1970 NIT, which also resulted in an NCAA rule change. The story is thus: The NCAA finished arranging the 25 team field, and then (because this was back in the day) started calling up the schools to tell them where they were bracketed and when they were playing.
When they got around to Marquette, Al didn't care for the NCAA's opinion of his team, which was ranked #8 in the country at the time with a record of 22-3. He told the NCAA where they could stick their tournament, declined the bid, played in the NIT, and won it. Since then, the NCAA has made it so that if you get selected to the NCAA tournament, you have to play in it.
3) Wow, you learn something new every day right? Moving back to this year’s team, did you expect Marquette to be this far along in Steve Wojciechowski's third year?
Yes and no.
On one hand, you'd like to think that a new head coach taking over a program that just missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine seasons should be able to wrangle together one NCAA tournament appearance in his first three seasons.
On the other hand, Wojciechowski is essentially coaching his third completely different roster this season. Year 1 was guys left behind by Buzz Williams' repeated recruiting failures with Matt Carlino stapled onto the roster as a grad transfer, Year 2 was The Henry Ellenson Show and also two other freshmen being required to play heavy minutes, and now, in Year 3, the roster has been completely remade yet again into a team that shares the scoring load depending largely on which three-point shooter is the hot hand on that particular night.
Given the complete shift in roster composition from last year to this year and without an obvious dominant scorer coming into the season and with an obvious significant weakness in terms of size on the roster, I had this team as 50/50 as to whether or not they'd make the NCAA tournament this year back in October. It's kind of a big deal that they actually pulled it off, to be honest.
4) At the forefront of “Year 3” has been freshman Markus Howard. He’s been a breakout star for Marquette, but how did he wind up in Wisconsin after playing his prep ball in Arizona?
Well, therein lies a tale. Howard originally committed to Arizona State back when he was a sophomore in high school. That was when Herb Sendek was the head coach at ASU, but he was fired at the end of that season. As you might expect, Howard backed off of his verbal commitment at that point, but he stayed in contact with Stan Johnson, the ASU assistant that was his primary recruiter, while Johnson was kept on by the Sun Devils to guide the program while they hired a new coach.
At the same time, Arizona head coach Sean Miller hired Marquette assistant Mark Phelps to take the same job with the Wildcats. That left an opening on the MU staff, and Steve Wojciechowski hired Johnson, thus bringing the connection to Howard to Milwaukee.
In the meantime, Howard transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada and ended up on track to finish his high school curriculum after just three years of high school. Marquette had an available scholarship for this year, Howard graduated from high school, boom, he's a 17 year old suiting up to play college basketball a year ahead of schedule.
The crazy part about the whole thing is that Howard, who turned 18 the day before Marquette's final regular season game, is wildly over-performing expectations on every conceivable level. Think about it this way: He's supposed to be finishing up his senior year of high school right now, but instead, he's leading an NCAA tournament team in scoring, ranks #1 in the country in three-point shooting percentage (54.9%), and currently ranks 7th in Marquette history for three-pointers in a season. It's ridiculous.
5) Yeah when you look at the stat sheet for Marquette the numbers leap off the page. How does the team generate so much offense?
It comes down to this: Defenses have to pick which shooter that they're going to leave open.
Marquette has three of the 40 most accurate three-point shooters in the country: Markus Howard (54.9%, #1), Andrew Rowsey (45.4%, #33), and Sam Hauser (45.2%, #40). Grad transfer Katin Reinhardt is no slouch at 38%, and Jajuan Johnson is more of a multi-dimensional offensive player, but he's still knocking down 37% of his long balls. All of this combines to make MU the most accurate three-point shooting team in the country.
Since Wojo rejiggered his rotation in mid-February, you're likely to see at least three of those guys on the floor together at all times, and Howard, Rowsey, and Hauser are all in the starting lineup. All of that spacing for shooters opens up a lot of room inside for Luke Fischer and Matt Heldt, the only two bigs on the team, to go to work. Both Fischer and Heldt are shooting over 64% on the season.
6) So if you could see a weakness for Marquette, where would it be?
The defense is a total nightmare.
Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey are both under 6-feet in height, and as mentioned above, they start together. Duane Wilson gets the third back court/wing spot in the newly configured lineup, and he's only checking in at 6'2". Big guards, for example guys like Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier, can give MU's miniscule backcourt fits because of the size mismatch.
Things aren't much better inside. Sam Hauser and Katin Reinhardt are woefully undersized to defend big guys, and Luke Fischer and Matt Heldt have a massive foul problem. In the six games since Wojo changed up the lineup and given Heldt the majority of the minutes at center, the two big men have combined for 44 fouls in 231 minutes of game play.