"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, March 28, 2008

A look back with an eye on the future

Six days after the toughest post-season loss I can remember, the numbness still remains. Initially after the loss I figured time would quickly heal the wound, and I'd enthusiastically look forward to what is always an interesting off-season with MU -- not to mention the promise of next season.

Oh, if that could be so.

Truth is, the Stanford defeat was MU's most painful post-season loss since the 1978 upset to Miami (Ohio). This loss will ache for quite a while - - that's what happens when a program is flying high and has its wings clipped just before reaching new heights. And sure, there's been plenty of debate about how MU lost -- there's never a shortage of opinions about this team when they lose a close game. In watching the replay a couple of times this week on DVR, I have no complaints. MU's best player, and one of the hottest players in the country, had an open look at the end of regulation and another open look with a few seconds left in OT; neither shot fell. Despite that, it took an NBA lottery pick making a remarkable shot to beat MU -- a shot he released as he slid behind the backboard towards the baseline, out-of-bounds. In the end, MU came up short against a very good team.

Still, what the loss won't do is cloud the progress the Marquette program made during the 2007-2008 season. While the team did not demonstrate the kind of watershed breakthrough many expected, the trajectory of the program remains impressive, particularly given the strong core of returning talent and a balanced recruiting class arriving this fall.

Let's recap the highlights:

  • 25-10 record, the third time a Crean-coached team reached that lofty wins plateau;
  • MU won at Wisconsin;
  • MU beat Notre Dame twice;
  • For the first time, MU advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinals;
  • MU advanced in the NCAA tournament;
  • The emergence of Maurice Acker. Acker played his best ball in the last month of the season - a good sign for the long-term health of the program;
  • Jerel McNeal. What can you say, he was extraordinary when his team needed him most;
  • Dominic James. Folks will complain about his shooting -- which is abominable -- but James emerged as MU's top on-the-ball defender this year, and his better than 2:1 assist to turnover ratio is an indication of how much his overall game improved year to year;
  • Trevor Mbakwe. I'm indifferent about Crean's decision to rip the redshirt off late in the season, but in a limited role Mbakwe appears to be the out-of-area rebounder MU has lacked for years, and plays bigger than his size;
  • Lazar Hayward. More often than not, players improve the most between their freshman eand sophomore seasons. That was the case for Hayward, who's diverse offensive game and rebounding toughness were welcome sights on a team that once relied solely on its backcourt.
Now, let's recap a few of the underwhelming points from the season:
  • Eleven Big East wins. While MU secured more Big East conference wins than ever before, the team also played more Big East games than ever before. Eleven wins is laudable but considering the veteran bunch MU returned this year, at least a dozen wins and competing for the Big East crown were more reasonable expectations;
  • Roster limitations. Coming into the season with all of its key contributors returning, the sky appeared to be the limit for the Golden Eagles. However a redundant roster, the lack of skilled big men, and the absence of outside shooting continue to define this group. Crean's strategy of building an athletic roster of players with limited offensive diversification and a hunger for aggressive defense has proven to be a smart formula for keeping the program in the upper half of the Big East -- a major accomplishment. Despite this, there's a fear that the program will plateau at the present level unless that roster building approach is refined;
  • Poor production from the seniors: Before the season started I was bullish on the team in part because of the return of two key seniors, Barro and Fitzgerald. My enthusiasm was misplaced. Unlike many of the seniors during TC's tenure, these guys failed to deliver in their final season much like Sanders, Townsend and Merritt struggled in lead roles for the 2003-2004 team. Barro, relegated to a reserve role for most of the campaign, struggled mightily in that new capacity. Even as a late-season starter, he never recaptured the promise he showed during his junior season. Fitz? Despite leading the nation in the dubious category of "fouling a shooter on a made basket", Fitzgerald rarely displayed the confidence of a senior in any aspect of his game. His inability to sink open shots or contribute consistently with a solid floor game greatly hindered the team;
  • David Cubillan: He was my pick to struggle this year, and he followed suit. After his 13 point effort in the win against Pittsburgh in February, Cubillan became one of MU's most ineffective players in the last month of the season. Cubillan scored a combined 14 points in MU's last eleven games, shooting 16% from the field (5 for 31) amidst declining playing time. With the emergence of Maurice Acker, the impending arrival of Nick Williams and Tyshawn Taylor, as well as a healthier Scott Christopherson it is difficult to see Cubillan contributing to this team next season.
By any measure, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives and the state of the program is solid to great. This past season was a memorable ride. While there are areas where the program needs to demonstrate improvement -- specifically in recruiting a broader mix of skills -- the formula largely works, but is it enough going forward?

Coming up in the next couple of days we'll look at Crean's effort to remake the nature of the Marquette roster -- and what that could mean for the program. On to the offseason!


Matt Quandt said...

Great stuff, as always, CS. Thanks for another superior season of coverage.

I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment that the program continues to trend upward. Likely not fast enough for some, but I'll take stability and consistent production over the topsy-turvy ride other programs have experienced in the last few years.

I'd rather nitpick shortcomings that keep us out of the Sweet Sixteen, than nitpick shortcomings that keep us outside the tournament. It's a wild, enjoyable ride.

This next year will be a critical one for the program, as we bid farewell to the Big Three, and hopefully witness the dawn of the next generation. Let's just hope fans' lofty expectations for DJ, Wes, and Jerel won't cloud the respect due for the reality of their impressive accomplishments while representing MU. The Big East returns a ton of talent, so it'll be another grueling, fantastic season. I can't wait to renew my tix.

James said...

Number 1 - I don't expect any of the Big 3 to go pro this year for various reasons, therefore, expectations are going to be through the roof. They should be too after the glimpse we were given these last few games. More importantly, I think this upcoming season is a biggie for Crean.I know, I know, it's great he's brought MU back to prominence, but he now needs to take it to the next level. I have no problem in saying that Crean might deserve to be on the hot seat if MU doesn't have an outstanding 2008-09.

anonymous said...

I think your opening paragraph was a little dramatic. C'monnnnn! Are you serious?

James said...

I'm dead serious and its about time some of MU's fans let their balls drop and start dishing out the criticsm when its due. None of the Big 3 will go pro because frankly they are just too inconsistent and I dont see an NBA team taking the risk until they show a little more maturity - hell, even if its just at the free throw line. If they are all back and we don't finished 1 or 2 in the BE with all the talent other teams are losing - it'll be bullshit. Take that for dramatic.

Gene Frenkle said...

Well, that's dramatic, I'll give you that. But please, don't even mention Matthews going pro. I don't think agents are getting ready to bang down his door.

Excellent assessment on the team. I too am excited on its progress and you are right on in that the seniors did let them down, and Cubillan was MIA the last month.

I do think, however, that it's Christopherson that will still not get on the court instead of Cubillan. An off season of film and conditioning and confidence building will help David. He was great the first six weeks driving and dishing, then once the big east started, he quit doing that.

Scottie C is just too slow to guard and play in the Big East. I really hope I'm wrong, I just don't see him getting PT over anyone that's currently on the roster, or about to join it.

tvbrain said...

Anyone else think we lost the Stanford game when Brian Butch chose Wisconsin?

Derek said...

I know I might be the only one saying this, but I actually think we will be stronger up front next year with a healthy Trevor and an intense Burke. Burke showed that he could be at least a solid backup this year and those two are better than Barro/Grimm/Kinsella combos of the past. We'll miss Oozz, but we should not be hurt too much up front. Something to be optimistic about.

Also, hopefully TC spends a half hour every practice working on end of game situations.