"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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reviewing a Rivalry...MU vs DePaul

"People can talk all they want about this being just another game---no way. This is a rivalry game, for sure, and our guys will be ready for it." – DePaul Coach Tracy Webster

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the start, I promise that I’m not going to try to argue with Tracy Webster, the man is going through enough right now. Whether or not DePaul is our best or biggest rival, whether this game means as much to Marquette fans as games against Wisconsin or Notre Dame, whether this game means more to DePaul than it does to Marquette, those are all arguments for another day. The fact of the matter is that DePaul has been a rival since nearly the beginning of Marquette basketball, and given how much the two schools have in common, it really could not be any other way. For more on today's game be sure to check out the informative Q/A John that from Chicago Hoops provided today.

The similarities are numerous. Both DePaul and Marquette are large Catholic institutions located in the Midwest. Both have great traditions of basketball excellence going back decades. Both made their names( at least in a basketball sense) under legendary coaches, DePaul under Ray Meyer and Marquette under Al McGuire. Both teams have had many great players, the names of whom we all know. Perhaps even more important than any of that, both schools have been competing on the recruiting trail since the very beginning. Illinois in general(and Chicago specifically) has a wealth of high school basketball talent, and many of the greats in the past have chosen Marquette over DePaul or vice versa. Bo Ellis, Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Doc Rivers, Quentin Richardson, Dwyane Wade. It’s a who’s who of both Marquette and DePaul basketball.

And yet….something has always seemed a little bit off when looking at the rivalry. The games have never seemed to have the intensity of say a Marquette vs. Wisconsin game or a Cincinnati game during the Bob Huggins era. I've tried for quite awhile to figure it out, and always come up with no real solution. Was it the fact that we're both Catholic schools? No, otherwise there would be no Notre Dame rivalry. Was the fact that we play them so often dulling our sensitivity? I don't think so, we play Wisconsin nearly as often, and no one would accuse Marquette fans of going soft on them. Could it be the fact that we're now in the same conference, and on some level need them to do well for the health of the conference? Again no. The rivalry with Louisville has intensified because of the conference, and we've started new rivalries with folks in other Big East cities.

With no real answer, and in an effort to figure out what makes the rivalry different from nearly every other one we have, I decided to take a look back at the history of the two programs, at least from a statistical perspective. What I’ve found may surprise you.

The Basics…or things to get out of the way before I move on

  • Marquette and DePaul have been playing each other since the 1917-18 season, the second in the history of MU basketball. That wouldn't normally be a surprise except for the fact that DePaul didn't hire their first basketball coach until 1923. One could argue that Marquette is doctoring the record books like our friends on the east side have tried to do, but both MU and DePaul agree that these games occurred, so I'm going to let them slide.
  • Going into Wednesday’s match up, the teams have played 107 times, with Marquette holding the all time advantage, of 64 wins versus 43 losses. I feel a bit dubious counting games against a team that apparently had no coach when we first played them, but given that they employed Jerry Wainwright for five years one could argue that they haven’t had a coach for the last several years either….low blow I know. Beyond the total numbers though, that’s where things start to get interesting.

Decades of Domination

Most often when people talk about rivalry games, they talk about how both teams need to be capable of winning the game for it to truly be a rivalry game…cough…UWM…cough. If one team has no shot, then really it’s just another game against another team you should beat. And yet, when you examine the history of Marquette vs. DePaul, what you come across is a series of what you might call mini-dynasties, or periods where one team was simply so much better than the other that any win by the opponent was a huge upset. For Marquette and DePaul, those seem to span more than just years…they seem to be decade long streaks. Each team has essentially dominated the other for an entire decade before the pendulum suddenly switches, and the other team becomes dominant for another decade.

For example, in the 1970s Marquette was the king of the rivalry. From 1970 to 1976, they didn’t lose a game to DePaul, and finished the decade with a 14-4 record against the Blue Demons. The 1980s on the other hand were all DePaul. Under Ray and Joey Meyer, DePaul went 12-4 against Marquette in the 1980s. The pendulum swung back in Marquette’s favor the following decade when Warriors/Golden Eagles held a 16-6 advantage over their foes to the south. Given that, one would have expected the most recent decade to be all DePaul, but due to coaching changes, poor coaching, and lack of talent, the decade ended up 13-3 in Marquette’s favor.

When you look at the other early years it's a bit tougher to see that sort of pattern, as the two schools weren't playing nearly that often. The teams played only 3 times in the decades prior to Ray Meyer taking the DePaul job, which doesn't lend itself to much of analysis. In the 1940s and 1950s, DePaul holds a slight edge going 5-2 and 3-2 respectively, they played so infrequently that it's hard to get a read on any patterns. Finally in the 1960s the two teams began playing every year, and had what has been the only decade to date where one team did not dominate the other. Marquette barely eeks out a win, with an 11-9 advantage. But when you look more closely at the end of that decade you begin to see another interesting trend.

Great Coaches – Great Results

Perhaps not unexpectedly, or at least I should hope not, the legendary coaches for each of the programs dominated the rivalries during the height of their careers.

Al McGuire took over a down trodden Marquette program before the 1964-65 season, and going against a legendary coach like Ray Meyer he struggle initially. Of his first 6 games against DePaul, he lost 5. But once he had his players in place, things changed(here's that trend I mentioned before),. From the beginning of the 1967-68 season through the 1975-76 season Coach Al was undefeated against DePaul a staggering 18 game run. For his career, he finished 20-6 in head to head match ups against Ray Meyer.

Obviously, given Al’s success, Coach Meyer’s record won’t be quite as good…and it isn’t. All time he had a losing record against MU, going 25-29. But to have even that level of success despite a period of many down years due to Al, suggest that he had to have had great success at other times, and he did. In his non Al McGuire years, from 1942-1964 and then again from 1977-84, Coach Ray went 19-9 against the Warriors. Not too shabby.

National Prominence versus General Incompetence

One could argue, effectively I believe, that it a great rivalry isn’t about whether or not you and your rival are both good, but whether or not you and your rival are both on equal footing. You don't necessarily have to be competing with each other for national championships every year, some times the pride of staying out of the cellar against another team fighting for the same thing is enough to keep the rivalry going. On he other hand, it’s tough for there to be much of a rivalry when one team is a perennial championship contender and the other is a bottom feeder. And yet, the Marquette-DePaul rivalry has persevered through such times.

No one is going to argue that both programs haven’t at various times been national powers, at least not here. Both teams have won national championships, both teams have been to multiple Final Fours, both teams have made the post season numerous times. Overall Marquette has made the post season 43 times in the program’s history, DePaul comes in just behind at 39. Marquette has made the NCAA tournament 27 times, DePaul 22 times if you count the vacated appearances due to NCAA rules infractions and I’m in a generous mood so why not.

And yet for all the similarities what is staggering, at least in my view, is how rarely both teams have been great, or even good enough to earn a post season bid at the same time. In total, despite the storied nature of the programs, they’ve made the post season tournaments in the same year only 23 times. Further, when you look at whether or not the teams were in the same post season tournament, that has happened only 7 times.

Of the 43 post season appearances for Marquette, 20 of them occurred during a season in which DePaul did not make the post season. Conversely, of the 39 post season appearances for DePaul, 15 of them occurred when Marquette did not make the post season. Looking only at NCAA appearances, 16 of Marquette’s 27 occurred without DePaul in the field, and 7 of DePaul’s 22 occurred without Marquette.

Now I know what some of you are going to say…."but but the old format of the NCAA/NIT selection with the limited number of bids and the fact that both were independents kept them from making the post season in the same year, so it’s not a valid comparison".

Possibly, but when you actually look at the numbers, not very likely. The fact of the matter is, that while one side of the rivalry was enjoying a good season, most of the time the other team was mired in terrible basketball. In short nothing but their own incompetence was keeping them out of the tournament. Let’s take a look at the numbers to see what I mean.

During the years in which DePaul made the post season, but Marquette did not…Marquette was just bad. In those 15 seasons, Marquette had a combined record of 159-202. In nine of those years they had a losing record, and never once in those 15 years finished more than three games above .500. At no time during those seasons was anything keeping Marquette out of the post season other than Marquette themselves.

It’s pretty much the same for DePaul. In the years in which Marquette made it but not DePaul, the Blue Demons have ranged from decent to downright awful. Their record during those years is a paltry 249-284, with eight losing seasons. Certainly during a few of those years they did have winning records, perhaps even very good records, but as a whole Marquette wasn’t keeping them out of the post season, DePaul’s own play was.

Great Rivalries = Great Games?

Often when people think of rivalry games, they don’t just think of the teams involved, they think about the quality of the games. The players are more animated, the crowd more hyped up, and every possession seems to be the one on which the game will turn. Rivalry games seem to often come down to one play or one coaching decision, they seem to be games that you survive rather than win.

Yet when you really examine the history of Marquette vs. DePaul, that aspect seems to be missing. I’m not here to argue that there haven’t been great games between Marquette and DePaul throughout the years. Who can forget the 1979 NCAA Sweet Sixteen, the various upsets of a ranked team by a plucky underdog, or the numerous overtime games. Certainly there have been many great games. But taken as a whole, the games seem to lack that closeness you would expect from a rivalry game.

Going all the way back to the first game, the average margin of victory regardless of winner is 11.6 points. Not only that, but it’s not as if one team wins big and the other one simply squeeks by. Marquette has won its games by an average of 12.1 points, while DePaul wins by an average of 10.8 points.

When you look at it in more recent terms, i.e. since the two teams joined the Great Midwest Conference together in 1991, the numbers are even worse. The average margin of victory for either team is 13.1, with Marquette winning by an average of 13.4 and DePaul by 11.6. And it’s certainly not as if this has only been happening in recent times. During the Al McGuire era, his teams beat DePaul by an average of 12 points, while Ray Meyer enjoyed 10.42 average margin of victory during his years.

Now obviously average margin of victory isn't the only way to look at whether or not there are close games, you could if you were so inclined go year by year and look at the numbers. Fortunately for those of you who have read this far, I'm not inclined to do that. What I will say, is that in recent memory, even when looked at individually, there haven't been many close games. Since 1991(again conference start date), the two teams have played 36 times. In that span, only twelve games have been decided by 10 points or less, with only two games being one possession games at the end. Obviously there were many close games in the past, but given the general dearth of them in recent years, it’s easy to understand why some question how exactly this game fits the traditional notion of a rivalry game.

Hopefully the game tomorrow will be a great one, but from where I sit, I’m just fine with the oddities that make up this rivalry.


So what’s my point in all of this? As so often happens, I’m not sure. But as this thing moved closer and closer to Pudner-esque length, one thing kept coming back to me. For how different their fortunes may be now, Marquette and DePaul are eerily similar.

And maybe that's why the rivalry with DePaul has always seemed, well, different. As a fan base, we know what makes our program and our school different from Wisconsin and Notre Dame and Cincinnati and Louisville. We embrace those differences, and in some cases thrive on them. Our differences are a large part of what makes those rivalries great. But with DePaul, the differences are too small, and the similarities overwhelming. When it comes to DePaul, as Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy and he is us".

So perhaps, let us refrain from kicking a program when it's down and show a little restraint as we watch DePaul in their current state and remember, there but for the grace of the administration go we. Given our history, the roles will likely be reversed in the years to come.

With that, on to the game at hand -- now read on for more on the game.

No comments: