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.
- 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.
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!