"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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

What Should We Expect Now?

By Todd Welter

The old saying goes if you never have any expectations, you will never be disappointed.

Yet, my fellow Marquette hoops lovers, we just cannot help ourselves but to put expectations on our beloved team. What has that gotten us lately? Lots of frustration and disappointment.

There seems to be a new hope that the disappointment will fade away now that #DoneDeal Shaka Smart has actually arrived as the next head coach. Although there also lies some doubt that brighter days are ahead for the program given Smart not exactly living up to his billing at Texas.

Expectations and standards, a blessing and a curse at the same time I guess. Lately, I have been wrestling with what the appropriate standards should be for this program.

Maybe it was the athletic department actually pulling the plug on the Wojo era and those dancing on its grave that got me wondering. Granted I fully support the decision as the program was sliding back into place of irrelevance not seen since the Bob Dukiet and Mike Deane eras, but it was not like a halleluiah from the choir was needed.

Maybe I have been triggered to delve into this after CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander described the fan base as “fevered.”

While Marquette’s fan base does not have the completely unhinged expectations of say these programs

...the Marquette faithful can be known to have lofty standards. Although it those standards can fluctuate based on certain factions within the fan base.

There is The Al Days Faction that still does not realize how much dust that 1977 championship banner has collected. This faction will compare anything that is going on today to the glory days of AL even though it has been 16,069 days and counting for those scoring home between that magical night on March 28, 1977 and Shaka Smart agreeing to be head coach.

There is The Drink The Blue and Gold Kool-Aid Faction. This faction always has a positive spin on the program no matter how many lows it reached under the previous administration. It ignores how well or bad Marquette does come tournament time or what the final record was. Instead they will reveal in say winning the Great Alaskan Shootout or a great recruiting class coming in as success. They ignore that outside the Marquette bubble success is measured in final record and what is done in the Tournament. Hey, they have a positive outlook on life.

Then there is The Financial Faction that will cite over and over again that Marquette spends a lot of money and is a hoops-only school, so just win. The Financial Faction expects a high yield return on Marquette’s substantial investment in the basketball program and heads should roll if NCAA glory is not achieved.

Yes, there is The Rational Faction but even the majority of that faction was starting to grow tired of the previous head coach.

The cold hard fact, regardless of what faction you might be in, Marquette has gone 736 days since the last time it played in an “official” NCAA tournament game (Official is in quotation marks because Marquette probably would have gotten in last season had COVID not wiped out last year’s tournament) and more than 2900 days since Marquette last won a tournament game. For a basketball only, high spending program, that type of drought is astounding and why change was needed.

Now that change has arrived, what are the appropriate standards now that Shaka is running the program?

Besides the obvious standard of running a clean program, the quick easy and expectation is Shaka replicates what he did at VCU (Havoc!!) along with his recruiting success at Texas. You combine those two and you get a sky’s the limit era of prosperity. This is the brand and track record Shaka has built and this is what hopefully Athletic Director Bill Scholl and school President Michael Lovell envisioned when they finally convinced Smart to come home.

It still leaves me wondering though what is the appropriate standards and expectations the fan base should have overall. I mean we do not want to be delusional like say Indiana or NC State. Also, coaches come and go, but Marquette hoops is here forever.

Should it be hoping the Al glory days return for forever? Should it be demanding Marquette reach the first or second tier program level or accept that Marquette is probably a third or fourth tier program? Should it be let’s funnel more money into academics and less into the hoops program?

I would recommend these following standards and expectations. Please note, these are just suggestions based on being a MU fan since birth (it is in the late 30’s for those scoring at home), an alum and someone who covered the team for 13 years for various local media outlets (add or subtract at your own discretion).

First, the bare minimum standard, and I mean bare minimum, is no overall losing records.

Since Al McGuire came to campus 56 years ago, Marquette has had just seven seasons under .500 (with two coming under Wojo’s tenure). Some of those winning season numbers can be skewed since Marquette controlled its full schedule through 1989 and non-conference afterwards to build in some wins. Then again, it is not like in those 56 years Marquette was playing a schedule made up of just playing the Little Sisters of the Poor as some Marquette haters like to stereotype.

Second standard is winning conference records and competing for conference titles. Since Marquette first joined a conference in the 1989-90 season, the program has had just six losing records-four came under Wojo-with the rest of those records being at or above .500. Although having more chances at conference championship banners would be appreciated. Marquette has only three regular season conference championships and one conference tournament championship.

Sidenote .... I am aware of Shaka’s relative lack of success in the Big 12 but again, the hope is MU gets the combo of Havoc Shaka and Shaka, Texas Recruiter for Big East conference greatness.

Oh, and avoid March Madness invite-breaking losses to DePaul (the Wojo era had plenty of those) which brings me to postseason expectations.

This is the one that is harder to establish than it seems. Is it reasonable to demand yearly NCAA Tournament appearances and lots of Sweet 16’s, Elite Eight’s and maybe a few Final Four’s and dare I dream a National Championship here and there?

Yes, you can hope for that, but I would caution against expecting it because there is this pesky thing called reality.

Reality is Marquette has been battling a myriad of issues that gets in the way of NCAA Tournament shining moments. You have the shocking setback transfers (the Hausers for example) or just the transfer issue in general that typically leaves the MU roster on the being more inexperienced side (because one path to sustained NCAA runs is to get old and stay old as they say).

Then there is the injuries issue and good old fashion bad luck that gets in the way of making the dance or making deep runs especially over the past 21 years.

There was Travis Diener’s hand injury in the 2004-05 season which stopped any chance of making the dance (and any chance of the ball getting across half court). Let’s not forget the unexpected departure to the pros by Vander Blue that completely threw off the 2013-14 season (Okay maybe Buzz Williams should have had a better back up plan then a JUCO transfer who leaves two weeks into being on campus).

Continuing on with injuries that derailed possible March runs, there was Jerel McNeal’s late season thumb injury in the 2006-07 season that led to an eight seed and early exit against Michigan State. Dominic James’ broken foot late in the 2008-09 season derailed a possible Final Four run.

Oh, and then there was that heartbreaking first weekend moments that stopped a NCAA run in its tracks. The pain still stings from Steve Novak missing the wide open three in 2005, Brook Lopez’ 1.3 second corner shot in 2008, Lazar Hayward stepping over the inbounds line late in 2009 and the last second loss to Washington in 2010.

What is the proper standard then for postseason expectations? I would say take the 2000’s with a mix of the early 2010’s success as realistic expectations. Marquette never had a losing record in the 2000’s, made two NIT’s, seven NCAA’s and had a Final Four run (hence combine the Sweet 16 runs like the early 2010’s as the rest of the 2000’s decade did not have a second weekend appearance and just two second round game appearances after 2003) and missed the postseason once. A pretty good run because sometimes you are going to get what happened in 2004-05 (see above with Diener) or a season where you just have a mix of youth and underachievement (the 2003-04 season after the Final Four) or a season where the talent can only muster the bare minimum.

You could be saying what about always being ranked, being in the top 10, having big non-conference regular season wins, beating Wisconsin or top 10 recruiting classes?

Well, beating Wisconsin is nice but it does not define the season. Being ranked is fine and all, but you can be in the top 25 all year and still end up with an eight seed. Yes, you should hope for getting tournament resume wins in the non-conference but a poor conference showing can wipe those out (like what happened this season). Of course, you want the best talent possible but right now Marquette is still say losing more than its winning in its recruiting battles for the best of the best (hopefully Shaka will change that).

In the end, you are entitled to have whatever expectations you want. This is meant to be suggestive only. Just remember if you do not expect anything, you will get nothing in return. That is called being a DePaul fan.

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