What the heck happened to Marquette - and what's next?
The Marquette season that was previously destined for history will now be nothing but a footnote in the Ja Morant storybook, as the Murray State star shredded MU's defense in the Golden Eagles' 83-64 loss during the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
Marquette is now 0-2 on college basketball's biggest stage during head coach Steve Wojciechowski's five years at the helm, with the losses coming by a combined 39 points.
Much of the Golden Eagles' improvement this season came on the defensive end of the floor, as they jumped from 182nd in adjusted defensive efficiency into the top 40. But all of that progress came to a screeching halt in one afternoon, as Morant – a likely top-three NBA draft pick this June – dropped 17 points, 16 assist and 11 rebounds en route to the 17th triple-double in NCAA tournament history.
Marquette (24-10, 12-6 Big East) struggled to corral Morant on screens, either allowing him a full head of steam into the lane or giving him stress-free passes to wide open teammates in the corners or down low. Morant had a few nice moments scoring the ball, including a step-back trey to end the first half and a monster dunk on Joey Hauser to officially break Marquette's spirit in the second, but MU was so focused on stopping the sophomore star that they allowed his Racer teammates too many easy looks.
Morant only attempted eight shots and two free throws, yet Murray State still cruised to a 19-point victory behind a collective 54 percent shooting effort from the field.
Offensively, Marquette missed plenty of open looks but also got caught up in the Racers' high-tempo game. Markus Howard's hot start was ultimately wiped away with an inefficient second half; he and fellow junior Sam Hauser combined for 42 points on 44 shots
As poorly as they finished the season (six losses in their last seven contests), this was still a generally successful campaign for the Golden Eagles, and there is plenty to build on going forward. Seniors Joseph Chartouny and Matt Heldt – scant contributors this year – are the only scholarship players who are scheduled to depart; they will be replaced by Koby McEwen, a redshirt junior guard from Utah State, and Greg Elliott, a redshirt sophomore guard who missed this season with a hand injury, who will provide scoring help, ball handling and defensive versatility for Marquette's currently thin backcourt.
Of course, there is one question that will hang over Marquette's entire spring: Is Howard headed to the NBA?
You can't fault anyone for jumping to the pros, and many mock drafts have Howard going in the back half of the second round. He just posted the best scoring season in program history, his name is pasted all over the school record books, and he has grabbed the attention of scouts and executives in spite of his size.
But it still feels like a return to college makes sense for Howard. He did not finish the season especially strong – whether that was because of his wrist injury, the opponent's defensive strategy switch, or both. And while his contested shooting is unparalleled, he still has plenty of areas in which he can improve as a point guard. Howard was averaging four turnovers per game entering Thursday's matchup, and he still needs to find the line between controlling an offense and hijacking it.
He has good vision but is only a so-so passer in traffic, and he can also still get a little loose with his handle. Five-foot-eleven shooting guards do not exist in the NBA, so Howard must clean up those finer areas if he wants to carve out a career as a backup point guard.
It feels like a mid-second round pick will still be available next season, even if Howard only marginally improves his point guard skills as a senior. (Howard is still relatively young too; he just turned 20 years old this month.) Howard can enter the draft and still retain his college eligibility so long as he doesn't sign with an agent, and that is certainly something he should pursue. But unless an NBA team gives him a verbal promise that it would select him inside the top-40, he seems like a good candidate to return to Milwaukee.
Marquette will almost certainly be the Big East favorite next season with Howard in tow, plus they have unfinished business after the late-season collapse in 2018-19. Howard is also a member of the NCAA Oversight Committee, so he is likely more invested in the college game than most, and he has a chance to finish his career as a true Marquette legend with one more accomplished season.
No one should begrudge Howard for jumping to the pros – the no. 45 pick in last year's draft, Hamidou Diallo, signed a two-year, $2.25 million deal with a team option – but with a high-level team waiting for him back at campus, a sour taste in his mouth after a beatdown loss in the NCAA tourney for the second time in three year and some parts of his game to work on for the future, there shouldn't be any rush to jump to the next level.
Three players listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter have played in the NBA this season: Frank Mason, Tyler Ulis, and Isaiah Thomas. None of them are regular contributors and they have combined for a whopping 0.1 win shares over 46 total games. Howard is unlikely to crack the glass ceiling on sub-6-foot players, even with his shooting acumen and remarkable work ethic.
A single-digit seed and a competitive season in the Big East was the goal for Marquette entering the year, and they checked both boxes. Marquette should be even better next season – but until then, the Golden Eagle faithful will be forced to stew over this ugly tournament loss and hope Howard returns for his final campaign.
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