Marquette Courtside: Choose Your Own Optimism Adventure

Welcome to the first 2019-20 edition of Marquette Courtside. Dan Pfeifer here, having returned to my small corner of the Internet where I’ll have once-a-week observations about Marquette Basketball while scratching my head over the how, somehow, someway, I am currently the longest-continually-credentialed member of the regular media to be “on the beat” for MU hoops.

Marquette’s final tune-up for the regular season was its exhibition win over St. Norbert Tuesday night. It was our first chance to see what the team may look like this year, albeit with emphasis on the word “may,” as it’s difficult to gauge too much off Steve Wojciechowski trying different personnel combinations. Still, this year’s group has new faces playing key roles. I believe we shouldn’t even try to talk about what they can do until we see them play an opponent at least once. All except injured big-man graduate transfer Jayce Johnson have now done so, so let’s talk.

I get the sense there’s an odd optimism among Marquette fans entering this season. It’s not as powerful as it is on an annual basis for, say, Packers fans who always know they have a shot with Aaron Rodgers on the field, or, more recently, Brewers fans, who may have even been overly optimistic heading into 2019. The vague yet unprovable hype surrounding new players who, sight unseen, sound pretty good from secondhand reports, seems to be providing many fans hope. It’s tempered, though, by the end of last season and knowing two men who were considered the present and future of the program, Sam and Joey Hauser, have left MU behind.

Now that we’ve seen some of the new faces come into the mix, we can verify some of the hype has merit. Transfer point guard and one-time Mountain West Freshman of the Year Koby McEwen appeared ready to be a significant contributor for Marquette Tuesday night, giving them a presence more closely resembling a true point guard than Markus Howard did as a shooting guard in point-guard’s positioning last year. Ed Morrow looks stronger, and if both Johnson can heal up and Theo John can avoid the foul troubles that have plagued every Wojciechowski big man — I’m tempted to call it Luke Fischer Disease — Marquette starts looking like a multidimensional team that can score in a variety of ways, be a force on the boards with John, Johnson and Morrow, and get defense from those guys and a returning-from-injury Greg Elliott. With that kind of depth and those interchangeable parts, you can make a case Marquette could be near the top of the BIG EAST again.

That said, you still shake your head at how much deeper this team would have been had the Hausers stayed here. And yet, I now feel like I better understand why they’re gone.

No, it’s not just Howard and his volume shooting at times. If anything, with McEwen running the point Tuesday night, I started to get the impression there might not be enough basketballs on the court to keep Marquette’s shooters satisfied, even without the Hausers. While McEwen did distribute, he wasn’t exactly a Derrick Wilson, pass-first point guard. The ball “stuck to his hands” a reasonable amount, by which I mean he was willing to decide that he himself was the best scoring option on more than a few occasions. That’s not a bad thing by itself, but given Howard ran the point last year and made the ball stick to his own hands plenty, you start to wonder if Howard, no longer having the same kind of control over such matters, will get the ball as much as he wants, particularly if it’s McEwen himself who is taking the shots offensively. You can see how they will work well together when the team is winning, but I will be interested in seeing the interaction when Marquette plays tougher opponents.

So you’ve got Howard, who we all know loves to score, and McEwen, who looks like he likes to score, and that’s two guys on the floor who seem hungry for scoring opportunities. The Hauser brothers would have been two more. Having that many scoring threats is great, and if they all get hot, you post 100 points and are unbeatable. But as we’ve seen countless times in the NBA, a team of all scorers isn’t always a good mix. For the Hausers, if they’re looking to get to the next level as scorers, they probably need to be someplace where those abilities are unique and needed, not where there’s an abundance of guys who want to put the ball in the hoop. At Marquette, I really think there wouldn’t have been enough basketballs on the floor if you had Howard, McEwen and the Hausers all out there at once. Eventually you need guys willing to set up the scorers to score through screens, passing and rebounding.

Granted, I’m perhaps underselling some parts of the Hausers’ complete game in categorizing them as scorers, and there were other factors in their leaving. Fact is, they’re gone, and Marquette is not only dealing with no longer having them, but also coming off a true end-of-year collapse, highlighted by getting boatraced by Murray State — yes, Ja Morant, but Murray State — in the NCAA tournament. While optimism rooted in newfound depth isn’t misplaced, doubts about the ability of the program to produce a consistent winner from November through March isn’t misplaced either, given recent results.

It comes to this: Whatever you want to believe about Marquette going into 2019-20, you’re not wrong.

You have evidence the team can be great. You have evidence it could have issues. I can lead you down one path or another, but since both have validity, I’ve presented both cases here and decided to let you choose. The pieces are there for things to come together nicely. There are also familiar fault lines that could cause things to fall apart. Obviously Wojciechowski doesn’t want the latter to happen, but since it has gone that way a couple times, he has more pieces now than he ever has, and having two popular players abandon him stirred questions, there’s more pressure now for Wojo to win than there has been in any other season. Howard might go down as the top statistical scorer in the illustrious history of the program and a lot of pro potential has surrounded the program the last two years. If that doesn’t result in a single NCAA tournament win, the questions will ask themselves.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

HEY, WHERE WERE THOSE BLOGS ABOUT THE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT? We promised we’d talk about it, but in a busy summer, we didn’t. The Golden Eagles Alumni team darn near won the $2 million, but ended up falling to a team of Ohio State alumni in a hard-fought game that got away from them at the end. The alumni team’s dedication to TBT is laudable, and they’ve gotten closer to winning every year, but you start to wonder when Travis Diener will have that one beer too many to will keep him on the couch, as well as when the group that’s been dedicated to it will just not be able to play at as high of a level as they have. Hopefully that’s not next year, as there’s a good chance some TBT games will return to Milwaukee. I’m working on clearing my summer schedule, so if it’s here, we’ll be on top of it.

LOYOLA — NOT THAT ONE, OR THAT ONE, BUT THAT ONE: Did you know that there are nine different Concordia Universities across the country? They even have an annual basketball tournament between a bunch of them. By comparison, the four Loyolas — Chicago, Marymount, Maryland and New Orleans — must feel like a small, uncoordinated group (the Concordias are affiliated; the Loyolas are all Jesuit institutions but not connected otherwise). The Maryland variation on the Loyola theme will be Marquette’s first regular-season opponent Tuesday. Follow along with my thoughts that night on Twitter at @MUPfeif.

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