When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, UConn athletics will be back where they belong in the Big East. Of course, this Big East isn’t exactly the same as when the Huskies were last members, so we caught up with writers who cover those schools to get the lowdown on how things are going.
For this edition, the folks over at Anonymous Eagle, SB Nation’s Marquette site, took some time to answer our questions on the new conference and Marquette basketball.
Note: these questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
What have the last seven years been like without UConn in the Big East?
Quiet and uneventful.
Remember y’all’s second to last year in the conference when Jay Wright and Villanova crashed and burned? Yeah, well, since then they’ve been absolutely wrecking shop, winning two national titles and essentially being penciled in as the favorite to win the league every single season. That’s wild. When you guys left, Buzz Williams had taken Marquette to the second weekend of the NCAA tourney in three straight seasons and was poised to install the Golden Eagles as the top dog in the league. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Mix in the most successful runs in Providence and Seton Hall history and impressive debut runs from Butler, Creighton, and Xavier, and it’s easily an understatement to say that the Big East has been exciting to watch over the past several years.
DePaul is still bad.
What was your fanbase’s reaction to the news that UConn was rejoining the Big East?
Mixed, to say the least. Given the way Kevin Ollie’s tenure as head coach for men’s basketball had crashed to a halt, there’s legitimate questions to be asked about whether or not Jim Calhoun was solely responsible for Connecticut being UConn in big letters on the marquee for so many years. Dan Hurley’s first season had just finished a year ago when the announcement was made, and that didn’t really inspire a lot of warm feelings, either.
I personally had already come to terms with the need to bring the Huskies back home. Once the ACC and Big Ten announced that they were going to go to 20 game league schedules, it only made sense to move to 11 members in the Big East and play a 20 game round robin schedule. Connecticut was the only real option that made any sense for that plan. Strong history, devoted fans, will help sell tickets in every arena in the rest of the league. The only sticking point for me was the continued existence of UConn’s FBS football program or more accurately, the potential for UConn to hop out once a better deal came along. Commissioner Val Ackerman installed strict enough penalties over Connecticut’s potential departure from the Big East that I’m not worried about it.
Aside from renewing old rivalries, one of the biggest perks of the Big East is an easier travel schedule for both teams and fans. Assuming it’s safe to travel come college basketball season, what do Huskies fans need to know about your arena(s)? Any restaurants/bars/destinations you recommend?
Well, that’s the big news in terms of Marquette since the two men’s hoops teams clashed. MU just finished up their second season in Fiserv Forum, the new downtown Milwaukee arena. Since it’s only been two years, Connecticut has obviously never played there yet, so the fact that you will see a new building right away is a whole thing. It’s still the newest building in the NBA, so playing a Big East conference game in the best arena in the NBA is never a bad thing, right? I like the building much more than the Bradley Center for numerous reasons, but the most notable one is the redistribution of seats in the building. The BC was built with hockey in mind more than anything else, and upper deck seating is important for hockey. That’s not the case for Fiserv, so instead of the seats being something like 60/40 favoring upstairs, it’s now in the neighborhood of 75/25 favoring downstairs.
Fiserv was built directly north of where the Bradley Center used to be, so for any UConn fans that made the trip to Milwaukee in the past, the general surrounding area is still the same. The big change is the Deer District plaza on the east side of the building. The Bucks owners built out a huge area with bars and restaurants right outside the arena with the obvious idea of recreating the Jurassic Park type feeling that you saw in Toronto during the 2019 NBA Finals. There’s a local Milwaukee brewery that built a second location right in one of the buildings, which is neat. I know the pandemic has already cost the District one of the restaurants, but it’s still a prime location so I would imagine it wouldn’t sit quiet for long once things get going again.
UConn and Marquette have been involved in some classics during the old Big East days. Is there one game from the first go around that sticks out for you?
Limiting it to one is actually hard. One of my talking points to MU fans who were of the “[BLEEP] UConn” mindset when the news was breaking was that I can describe multiple UConn/Marquette games in less than 10 words and everyone knows exactly what game I’m talking about. The Steve Novak game. The “Dominic James broke his foot” game. The “refs screwed up overtime” game, which is also the “Junior Cadougan forced overtime” game. The Jimmy Butler winner game. That’s FOUR meetings right off the top of my head, and the two teams have only met nine times, all during the previous incarnation of the Big East. When half the meetings between the two sides come instantly to mind, it’s usually a pretty good idea that you should start playing that team again.
Unrelated: Marquette is 6-3 all time against UConn, which is nice.
Star guard Markus Howard wrapped up his college career last season. Connecticut folks might be familiar with him for his 26-point performance in last year’s NCAA tournament first round game in Hartford. For those that might not have known Howard, what did he mean to the program and how will the Golden Eagles try to replace his output this season?
It’s impossible to quantify Howard’s impact on the program while we’re still this close to the end of his collegiate career. What I do know is that Markus Howard on the court was appointment television. Sure, we all knew we were watching something potentially great while he shot 55% from behind the arc as a freshman, but as the 30 point games and the program records and Big East records started to stack up, it was clear that Marquette fans needed to watch every single minute that he played, because the nature of college basketball is that everything comes to an end before you want it to end. It wasn’t just within the fanbase, either. If Marquette was playing, national observers had to keep an eye on the game, because there was always the chance that Howard was going to do something bonkers. This is a true fact sentence: Markus Howard scored 51 points in 31 minutes against USC as a senior. Big game, big opponent, big TV moment over Thanksgiving weekend in a holiday tournament, BOOM, absolute flames.
I didn’t even mention the student-athlete prayer group he started, or the service trip he went on, or his decision to be outspoken about mental health, both for student athletes and people in general.
Replacing him will be impossible. Replacing his production on the court, however, that’s a different story, and one that the coaching staff is going to have to address. It’s going to have to be the cliched “production by committee” perspective, as there’s no one on the returning roster that has built up any body of evidence that they can become the leading scorer on the squad in 2020-21. D.J. Carton recently received a transfer waiver, so he’ll be eligible immediately and that will help. From there, though, it’s going to require everyone on the roster either taking a big step forward or making an immediate impact, which leads us into your next question…..
While UConn has made splashes on the recruiting trail riding momentum from rejoining the Big East, Marquette beat them out for the top 2020 recruiting class in the conference. What are the expectations for this frontcourt-heavy class led by Dawson Garcia?
Before I start answering this, I do want everyone to know that everything that I’m about to say has to be filtered through my answer to your next question. Anyway, it’s clear that Marquette is going to need the three true freshmen as well as redshirt freshman Dexter Akanno to provide something to the squad right away. It’s not a “well, these are the roles for them” kind of thing, it’s a “Marquette only has six returning players” kind of thing. More than that, it’s hard to see any of them being a go-to guy. Whether it’s their struggles this past season, a lack of regular playing time from the coaches to this point, or a fight to remain healthy, none of MU’s six familiar faces inspire confidence from the fanbase.
And so, that’s the situation that the freshmen see when they arrive on campus. Dawson Garcia is a top 40 prospect and with an inside/outside game at 6-foot-11, he’s a match up nightmare for opponents. I honestly think that Garcia is being slept on in terms of how much the Golden Eagles are going to give him the ball. Oso Ighodaro is 6-foot-9, and while reading reports from his high school games makes him sound like a terror on defense in the paint, I have seen multiple outlets refer to him as a guard, not the power forward that he’s labeled as on recruiting sites like 247 Sports. Justin Lewis sounds like he might be a prototypical stretch-4, able to mix it up as a rim protector but turn around and cash threes in your face on the other end.
There’s space for all three of them to contribute immediately, the question becomes whether or not they can do that.
Despite having an elite guard in Howard, Steve Wojciechowski has never made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament in six years. Even after putting together an impressive 2020 recruiting class and landing impact transfers in DJ Carton and Jose Perez, is Woj on the hot seat this coming season?
In a word? No.
Marquette threw his contract in the trash in May 2019, giving him a brand new five year contract, although that really just amounted to giving him a two year extension. This was immediately in the wake of the Hauser brothers departing the program for reasons that still remain shrouded in mystery, but the message from admin was clear: That was not Wojciechowski’s fault.
Has Marquette gone on “lost six of seven” streaks to end each of the past two seasons? Yep. Still made the NCAA tournament in the first one and they absolutely were going to make the tournament again in the second. As bad as it is to say “he’s 2-12 at the end of the last two seasons,” the fact of the matter is that if you give him credit for a tourney appearance in 2020, then he’s made the tourney in three of the past four seasons and made the NIT quarterfinals in the other year. No one is firing a coach when the “bad” season is an NIT quarterfinals appearance, and they’re definitely not firing a coach in that circumstance when there are financial questions to be asked thanks to the pandemic.
But patience is wearing thin, and the fact that Wojciechowski is not the most interesting or charismatic human being on the face of the planet is not helping matters. He ultimately has to bear the responsibility for Marquette fans having to say “Sure, Markus Howard broke the scoring record, but he never won an NCAA tournament game.” He had two chances to steer a team with the best scorer in program history out of a hilariously awful skid, and he couldn’t do it. Personally, I have resigned myself to the fact that he’s not going anywhere any time soon, and the word “resigned” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.
Before Wojciechowski, Marquette had two pretty eccentric coaches in Tom Crean and Buzz Williams that helped the Golden Eagles become a perennial NCAA tournament team. Which former coach is remembered more fondly?
Today, right now? Tom Crean, easily and without hesitation. For UConn fans that might not have been paying attention closely to MU while the Huskies weren’t in the Big East, that might sound kind of crazy. For years after Crean left for Indiana, Marquette would show this “Marquette history timeline” video as part of the pregame festivities. Tom Crean’s appearance in that video got booed at every single game. Buzz Williams took Marquette to three straight Sweet 16s, the first time that had happened since Al McGuire’s days in the 1970s.
And then Williams clearly quit on his team before the first season after The Reformation was over and bounced to Virginia Tech within days of not being selected for the NIT. Combine that with some very obvious-in-retrospect PR polishing right before he left and some interviews he did before the next season started about how you absolutely have to have an ESPN contract and a football team in order to really succeed, and people soured on Buzz Williams pretty quickly. Sprinkle in a dash of Indiana fans screwing Crean over and chasing him out of town after two Big Ten titles in five seasons, and all of a sudden, Crean’s business decision for his own career was pretty much forgiven.
Still kinda mad about him ducking out on a potential Final Four contender to fix Kelvin Sampson’s mess at IU, though, but I’m not mad at him, if that makes sense.
Who’s on your Mt. Rushmore of Marquette basketball?
Given that Markus Howard broke the MU all-time career scoring record in the first game of the 2019-20 season, this has actually been something of a hot button topic amongst Golden Eagles fans for the last year or so. As wild as it sounds, it’s very easy to put together an “All-Time Top Five Marquette Players” list without the program’s all-time leading scorer.
When it comes to a Mt. Rushmore, the question becomes whether or not it’s a players-only situation. If it’s not, then Al McGuire has to be on it. Marquette was the second winningest program in the country behind only UCLA while Al was patrolling the sidelines. His 1977 national championship team was almost assuredly not his best team, and it probably wasn’t even his second best team.
In terms of players, for me, it’s easy: Butch Lee, Bo Ellis, and Dwyane Wade are your three gimmes, and if it’s a players-only Mt. Rushmore, then the fourth is George Thompson. Butch Lee was the MOP of the 1977 NCAA tournament, and then turned around and won National Player of the Year the following season, and that’s the only NPOY in MU history. Bo Ellis is the only Marquette player to appear in two Final Fours, and we underrate him by saying that because he is actually the only Marquette player to appear in two national championship games. Oh, and in his free time, he designed the legendary untucked uniforms that MU wore in the 1977 national championship game. Dwyane Wade is Dwyane Wade, and if I have to explain that to you, then I don’t know why you like basketball. From 1966-69, George Thompson was Al McGuire’s star player, setting the MU all-time scoring record at 1,773 points, surpassing the old record by more than 250 points. The record would stand until it was broken by Jerel McNeal in 2009, 40 years later. Thompson’s record of 20.4 points per game stood until this past season, when Markus Howard averaged 27.8 to propel his career average to 21.6. When you have the scoring record for 40 years and the best points per game average in a program’s history for over 50 years, you get to be on the Mt. Rushmore, and I feel bad for leaving him off in favor of McGuire.