#32 Marquette 2019-20 Preview

-Matt Cox

Key Returners: Markus Howard, Sacar Anim, Theo John, Ed Morrow, Greg Elliott
Key Losses:
Joey Hauser, Sam Hauser, Joseph Chartouny
Key Newcomers:
Koby McEwen, Jayce Johnson, Symir Torrence


Outlook: Woof, what a gut-wrenching spring and summer for Milwaukee basketball fans (sorry Jim). We all remember when the Bucks got blindsided by the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Conference Finals after holding a commanding 2-0 series lead, but I’m here to remind you that it was Fiserv Forum’s collegiate tenant who took it on the chin first. Murray State made a mockery of Marquette’s [much improved] defense in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last March, and Ja Morant and the Racers sent the Eagles home packing prematurely.

Just when Marquette fans had washed away the bitterness from that 83-64 beatdown, the Golden Eagles’ golden boys, Sam and Joey Hauser, rocked the college basketball twittersphere when they announced their intent to transfer. Before that bombshell, the Hausers were slated to flank Markus Howard - college basketball’s human flamethrower - in a rerun of last year’s prolific offense, which explains why so many pundits pegged Marquette as a surefire top-10 team in the obligatory ‘Way Too Early Top-25 Rankings’.

That hype was mostly extinguished after the Hauser boys decided to exit stage right, but I’m here to keep that flame flickering. This is a squad I initially labeled as “overrated”, but the Hauser news seems to have caused an overcorrection in the Golden Eagles’ prognosis perception. All of a sudden, I get this weird feeling that Marquette is somehow, dare I say, underrated?

Make no mistake about it. The Hausers were lethal as complementary scorers to / floor spacers for Howard, and were under-appreciated as passers within the flow of the offense. As pointed out by Jordan Sperber in his Hoop Vision 2019 NCAA Tournament Bible, the Hausers’ dual threat ability to catch-and-shoot and attack a hard close out off the dribble made them devastating weapons in pick-n-pops with Howard.

This drive, spin and fade combination by Joey is quite an advanced move for a freshman:

The advanced on / off numbers in the chart below, courtesy of hooplens.com, tell a pretty basic story: Marquette’s offense was better with Joey and Sam out there (shocking!).

The brotherly duo knocked down 41% of a combined 325 triples last season, so their exodus puts a major dent in the Eagles’ outside shooting supply - yet, I’m relatively bullish that the roster is well equipped to replenish it.

Howard’s primary running mate last year, Sacar Anim, saw his offensive game expand tremendously (Anim shot 43% from behind the arc during conference play). While he’s not as dynamic as Sam or Joey, he’s a competent straight-line driver and rim attacker, so look for Wojo to feature him in more ball screen action with Howard this season.

Both Anim and Greg Elliott, who returns to the mix after missing the entire 2018-19 season with a thumb injury, will mesh nicely alongside Howard as more defensive minded, lower usage, off-the-ball counterparts. Most every Marquette fan would agree that Elliott was emerging as one of the premier on-ball defenders in the Big East back in 2018, but health is becoming a major red flag. He suffered yet another setback earlier this summer when he injured his right ankle during a work out. The timetable was initially set at 3-4 months, so there’s a good chance he’s unavailable to start the season.

If Elliott does missed extended time, incoming freshman Symir Torrence will likely see his minutes spike immediately. Torrence projects to be cut from the same cloth as both Anim and Elliot, per his own self-assessment given to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer:

"I'm a pass-first guard and can definitely give the bigs some confidence," Torrence said. "Get them the ball down low and set up my pick-and-roll game with them. And definitely getting involved with Markus and being a two-man with him and getting him more shots and easier shots. And getting him off-the-ball shots, so it would be easier for him and not have to score off the dribble all the time."

As much as I love the fit and role awareness of Anim, Elliott and Torrence next to Howard in the backcourt, Utah State import Koby McEwen brings a much more robust offensive toolset to the table. McEwen’s numbers at Utah State speak for themselves (16 PPG / 5 RPG / 3 APG), as he filled the box score on a nightly basis co-orchestrating the offense alongside last year’s Mountain West POTY Sam Merrill. ‘Koby Mac’ is a proven 3-level scorer and high level shot-maker, so his presence alone will keep defenses from diverting too much attention towards Howard. The key for McEwen will be finding his freshman year shooting stroke, when he rained in 42% from downtown on 137 attempts - that clip plummeted to a subpar 32% the very next year as a sophomore.

There was a noticeable paradigm shift in Marquette’s identity last season. Compared to the one-dimensional, 3-point reliant 2017-18 team, toughness and physicality were applicable descriptors for last year’s squad. So what changed exactly? From my vantage point, the biggest reason was the insertion of Theo John, an imposing beast inside who quickly became the interior fulcrum of the Golden Eagles’ much improved defensive unit. Prior to last season, there was no protection for the defensive soft spots on the perimeter, and opposing rim attackers had a field day against Marquette inside. John’s size, strength and advanced shot-blocking instincts deterred easy, uncontested looks in the middle and Big East foes struggled to get anything easy inside the arc.

Supporting John up front will be two incumbents, former Nebraska transfer Ed Morrow and rising sophomore Brendan Bailey, along with Utah grad transfer and 7-footer Jayce Johnson. Bailey was a pleasant surprise as a multi-positional defender in his first full collegiate season and became a key cog in the rotation late in the year. After completing a 2-year mission trip, he's far more physically and mentally mature than his underclassmen label may indicate. Morrow also carved out an important niche in the rotation as an interior garbage man and is relentless on the offensive boards.

Johnson was the real steal of the summer, a monster in the middle who may actually be the best rebounder of the bunch. The Mission Viejo native was the Pac-12’s most productive glass cleaner last season on a per possession basis, checking in with the highest and second highest offensive and defensive rebounding rate, respectively, in the league. Wojo has the option to utilize some combination of John, Morrow or Johnson in a destructive twin-tower lineup, which could terrorize opposing Big East frontlines up front.

Bottom Line: Postseason shortcomings aside, Wojo silenced many of his harshest critics last year and finally reached the lofty expectations bestowed upon him by preseason prognosticators. Even without the Hausers, that same narrative will continue to permeate around the program leading into the 2019-20 campaign. Despite winning an average of 21 games over the last four seasons, the Milwaukee faithful won’t be satisfied until the Golden Eagles can muster a deep run in March. Those Sweet-16 and Elite-8 trips at the end of the Buzz Williams era are still top of mind for this hungry fanbase, and will continue to haunt Wojo until he finally makes it out of the first round. On paper, this is still a tournament team with single-digit seed aspirations but has a smaller margin for error than last year’s group.