Brainwashed By Marquette
After my analysis of where to attend Midnight Madness festivities, it should come as no surprise that Friday night found me at the Al McGuire Center with a handful of friends checking out Marquette’s kick-off event. As much as I would have enjoyed checking out either Wisconsin or UWM’s events, Marquette simply seemed the most attractive in terms of convenience and excitement. And though I was quickly reminded that just about any Midnight Madness event can’t help but be remarkably cheesy, I truly felt like I was there as Marquette was entering a new era. Much has been said about Marquette’s move to the Big East, and that’s part of what provided the feel, but the fact that Marquette’s roster will be turned almost completely upside down this year was the biggest contributor to the new feel. But enough gushing about the new era at Marquette—let’s get back to my old friend, the bullet points:
1) I want everyone to recognize that I’m not complaining about this, since I’m talking about a freebie, but the free t-shirts that were being handed out to everyone attending Marquette Madness had to be some of the ugliest, cheapest looking t-shirts that I’ve ever seen. Coming in I was expecting something that I could use to polish my shoes, and I was not disappointed. Oh, and I suppose I’ll have to find some gold for my wardrobe elsewhere, as the t-shirts were white.
2) Line of the night belongs to my friend Adam. As we were grabbing our free shirts, the people at the counter asked everyone “Large or extra-large” to determine what size each person wanted. Adam, who earlier in the week attempted to win a quarter barrel of beer by eating a two-pound hamburger, 22 french fries, and two ounces of soup in 22 minutes in a promotion put on at a local tavern (he got all of the meat and half of the bun down before failing), initially grabbed a large t-shirt. After thinking it over for a moment, though, Adam turned around, looked at the people at the t-shirt counter and said “Who am I kidding—give me an extra large instead.” Pure comedy. (Side note—this would have been the line of the entire weekend, but my friend Kevin stole that honor the next day as we were watching the Wisconsin-Minnesota football game when he told me in the waning moments “If the Badgers win this one, I’ll do 20 hours of community service.” Roughly eight seconds after that comment, Wisconsin had what was essentially a game-winning punt block. Kevin was last seen heading towards the Boys and Girls Club.)
3) As I noted at the onset of today’s update, pretty much any Midnight Madness celebration is going to have some things about it that are pretty lame. This was no exception, as the first hour or so of the event wasn’t anything special. Good things about the first hour included a decent introduction of the Marquette women’s team, and the far-better-than-I-expected sounds of the U2 tribute band hired to perform at the event. The bad? The general flow of things, the poor microphone persona of the women’s head coach, the long, drawn out introduction of special guest Michael Redd, and pretty much anything (surprisingly) that Steve “The Homer” True did. I like the Homer, but he was out of his element as emcee.
4) The sound system at the Al McGuire Center was ridiculously bad. Part of the reason that the first hour or so of the event dragged on and on was poor pacing, but part of it was the fact that the people using the microphone could have been talking in German and I would have understood as much of what was going on as I did with the terrible acoustics that night. I’m assuming that the bulk of the issue was related to a portable microphone, as I could hear the regular PA announcer just fine. I just hope that this isn’t the norm at the McGuire Center, an otherwise nice facility.
5) Were there fan contests? Well, sort of. Early on there was a 3-legged layup race where two pairs of students had to complete a layup on each end of the court. The first pair to complete the task won gift cards to someplace I couldn’t make out over the sound system. That was the only contest, though, and it came off seeming kind of random. I’ve been to these types of events before, and typically there are either 4-5 of these type of fan contests, or none at all. Doing one contest and nothing more the entire night just makes it seem like someone screwed up at some point during planning.
6) Eventually, the team finally came out. After introductions, they did some warm-ups, which eventually became a layup line, which eventually became a dunk line. Everything was pretty standard until it was time for much-hyped freshman point guard Dominic James to head to the hoop. Now, I’d heard that despite the fact that he’s a mere 5’10” (and if you know how college height listings work, that’s probably inflated) that he could dunk, but I had know idea what I was in for. James’ first dunk was done with such ease that it was almost confusing to watch. My friend Adam says that the look of perplexed excitement on my face when I saw it was priceless, and I don’t doubt it. Through the rest of the evening I saw James throw down reverse dunks, 360 dunks, dunks after bouncing the ball off of other things, and combinations of all of the above dunks. And he was so relaxed about it that you almost wondered if he could throw one down on an 11 foot rim. During the dunk contest, he came close about four times to completing a dunk where he went through his legs in midair, a simply ridiculous feat for a 5’10” guy. And he was quick, to boot. Since Friday night, here’s what I’ve been telling people about James: “There’s lots of hype around Dominic James. Believe every bit of it.”
7) On Saturday my friend Kosta, always quick with a solid question, inquired of me after my ravings about James “Is he better than Dwyane Wade?” Normally, this is a question that I hate. No freshman should be compared to one of the best guards in the NBA. And I couldn’t really even do the comparison, since a Midnight Madness scrimmage is not exactly the best place to evaluate talent. But the question still intrigued me, so I thought about it and gave my best answer, given the circumstances: “I have no idea if he’s as good, but I think he’s more athletic.” Incredibly, I wasn’t lying. Wade’s certainly got several things that James does not (including, most notably, a few extra inches of height), but James is one of the most athletic specimens that I’ve ever seen.
8) Oh yeah, as great as James’ dunking display was, he ended up sharing the slam dunk title with fellow freshman Wesley Matthews. Though Matthews, an athletic man in his own right, was not quite as athletic as James, he made up for his deficit with creativity. His two most memorable dunks came as he lobbed a ball high into the air, removed his jersey, and then caught the ball off of the bounce, dunking it with authority, and a later dunk over his mother, who was seated in the lane in a chair from the scorer’s table. One of my friends aptly questioned during the latter dunk, “How many times to you think they’ve done that in the driveway at home?” A subsequent attempt at a similar dunk over Tom Crean was unsuccessful, and a bit more frightening, as Matthews came much closer to kicking his head coach in the head than he had with his mother.
9) With all this dunking, it might be easy to forget that Marquette has the best spot-up shooter in the country, Steve Novak. Novak reminded us of this, though, as he put on an impressive display in the three-point competition. The three point competition was abbreviated a bit compared to the standard format where each shooter empties five racks of balls. The two racks that normally appear on the baseline didn’t appear, so each shooter got 15 balls. Novak was stellar in the preliminary round, but was even better in the final round, rattling off 14 straight threes after missing his first shot. Whether he’s learned to do anything more than shoot still remains to be seen, but as I’ve said before, Novak may be a one-trick pony, but he’s a one-trick pony that I’d definitely want on my team.
10) Okay, who put Ousmane Barro, Marquette’s sophomore big man in the three-point competition? Was this a practical joke? And if it was, wouldn’t it have been funnier to see center Chris Grimm tossing up treys? Surely Grimm could have topped Barro’s score of two made shots, and knowing Grimm, he probably would have fouled at least one of the guys attending to the ball racks while doing so.
11) I had been very excited to see Tulane transfer Dan Fitzgerald, a player who many have said will be a key component of this year’s Marquette team now that he’s eligible after sitting out last year. That’s why I’m sort of disappointed in myself for being so interested in watching the new freshmen that I didn’t even notice until late into the event that Fitzgerald was not present, and his existence had not even been touched on by anyone at the Al McGuire Center. I thought I would get an answer to this question during the scrimmage portion of the evening when I met up with a pair of friends who had been sitting in the VIP section, due to one of them having some ties to the Marquette program. To my surprise, not even my VIP buddy, who’d been sitting by people who would normally be in the know, knew exactly what was going on. Until reports today that Fitzgerald was held out of the event for a violation of team rules and that he is supposedly practicing with the team, I was getting worried about another mysterious departure from the Marquette program. Goodness knows it’s happened before, but I hope this one’s just a legit punishment.
12) As I mentioned, I met up with some other people just prior to the scrimmage, which entailed my friends and I moving from the upper deck to the lower deck, and from the bleacher seats to actual stadium seats. The stadium seats were cheap plastic, though. I guess they sort of need to be, given that first and foremost the McGuire Center is a practice facility and you can’t have nice chairs bolted down where a good portion of the floor is, but the cheapness of these seats really detracted from the otherwise first-class McGuire Center.
13) The other newcomers? Well, I must again sheepishly admit that I got caught up in watching the athleticism of Dominic James and Wesley Matthews and sort of ignored Jerel McNeal, Jamil Lott and Dwight Burke (particularly the latter two). McNeal I sort of watched in the scrimmage, and he had a tough time guarding Joe Chapman, who routinely backed him down and out-smarted him. But that’s about the extent of it. Burke came in third in the dunk contest, and Lott’s been mentioned as a potential starter, so I probably missed the boat by ignoring them. Oh, and I can’t forget Matt Mortensen, who was impossible to ignore. I guess the best thing to say about him is that I suppose it’s possible that if he works really hard and has a bit of luck that he could get into a game or two in a few years. So I think it’s official–Mortensen’s a project.
14) I don’t want to go overboard on Marquette love here, since events like Marquette Madness are geared towards going overboard on getting people pumped up for the season, and creating excitement, but there was something exciting about this Marquette team. Don’t get me wrong—I still think it’s going to be a painful year learning what the Big East is like, but I honestly think that the Golden Eagles will be in good shape in a few years. Why? The most impressive thing about this team was not Dominic James’ dunking, or Steve Novak draining shot after shot. Rather, the most impressive thing was the demeanor of the freshmen. If I had gone to this event not knowing anything about this team, I would not have been able to pick out the freshmen. I probably would have thought that a few of them were seniors. These guys are leaders. They’re not intimidated by the stage that they’re on, and they just have a look to them that seems to say that they will succeed. It’s hard to describe, but I know what I saw. They’ve got a core of guys (i.e., not just one guy like Travis Diener) that just look ready to lead a team into battle. Assuming that this group sticks together for longer than the last few Marquette classes, the sky’s the limit. I can’t wait to watch it develop.
So there you have it–Marquette has me suckered in every bit as much as a few years back when people thought I was nuts for predicting a Final Four for the team a full year before they made it there. I’m not predicting any Final Fours for this team, but I am predicting that in two years, barring any major defections, this will be a strong Big East team. If I’m right, it just goes to show that I occasionally know what I’m talking about. If I’m wrong, then at least I’ll have a complete understanding of how Marquette can manage to dazzle recruits and bring in a stellar class following one of the most painful seasons in recent memory, as I will have been falsely dazzled. Like I said yesterday, you can say a lot of things about Tom Crean, but the man does know how to throw a party. And I thank him for the party that he threw on Friday. It’s good to be back in season.