Monday, January 09, 2006

Marquette vs. Cincinnati: The Little Engine That Nearly Could

After missing Marquette’s shocking victory over Connecticut in its first game in the Big East, there was no way I was missing the second conference game of the Golden Eagles’ season. Luckily, my friend Dez had a spare seat, and I actually got to watch the game from decent seats. The game didn’t end up being the second upset by Marquette, but the Golden Eagles are clearly more advanced than I expected they would be at this point in time, and largely put up a respectable first two games in the Big East. Thoughts on the game against Cincinnati, since I didn’t stupidly miss it this time, are as follows:

1) It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a Marquette game and been faced with a sizable line to get in the door. That line was there on Saturday morning. I’m hoping that this is some foreshadowing for the rest of the year. You might not see good crowds for games against, say, Lewis University, but it looks like the excitement for the Big East will bring people in. As it should.

2) Player intros seem to be back to normal. U2 comes blasting out over the PA system, the gigantic inflatable dancing men are back on the court, and things just generally seem to be back in order. The only criticism I would toss out is the video shots of each player on the scoreboard were much cooler last year when the players did ball slaps. Other than that, we’re back to a well-produced intro. Let’s hope they stop changing it up now.

3) For a guy that didn’t think much of Marquette coming out of conference season, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Golden Eagles come out of the gates playing with the intensity that they had showed for most of the Connecticut game. Even taking the Connecticut game into account, the first half might have been the best half of basketball that I’ve seen Marquette play this year. The players are starting to mesh and develop far quicker than I ever expected.

4) I had only seen one utterly ridiculous dunk by Dominic James in a game this year (note: all his dunks are somewhat ridiculous, given his size, but I’m talking about those ones that seem like they’d be tough for a 6'7" guy to complete), but we got one more on Saturday. James had two dunks, the most spectacular of which was a breakaway reverse dunk. As if that wasn’t enough, after the game it was revealed that he was sick coming into the game. As I’ve said before, I think this guy will be doing somersaults within three years.

5) Cincinnati’s Eric Hicks was unbelievable inside, and seemed to block everything in sight. He probably came close to blocking everything in sight, too, since the box score ultimately reflected that he had 10 blocks on the day. Granted, about half of those probably resulted from Jerel McNeal penetrating and taking some ill-fated shots, rather than kicking the ball out, but Hicks was still unbelievable.

6) Saturday’s big halftime event was the introduction of over 100 former Marquette players who had been invited to the game. Two points on this one. First, big compliments to Tom Crean and the athletic department for the incredibly wise move of continuing to reach out to alumni. The history at Marquette is rich, and the last few years are the only time that I’ve seen it embraced properly. Second, there was one heavyset gentleman who appeared to be wearing dreadlocks (the latter of which was somewhat goofy, since he was a white guy). I thought for about 20 seconds about who this somewhat younger guy could be when I looked at Dez beside me and said "I don’t know who that guy is for sure, but if I was a betting man, I’d say that Joe "The Animal" Nethen is the man that we’re looking at." Indeed, the man with the crazy hair and body of a retired offensive linement was the free-spirited Nethen, always a fun guy to watch when I was a kid.

7) I kept getting incorrectly excited every time I heard the name of Cincinnati’s "James White" called out by the PA announcer, since I kept thinking that he was saying "James Wright," my favorite UWM player from last year. Man, I loved James Wright. I hope that guy’s doing okay.

8) As you probably know, Marquette lost the game by four. Clearly, it was a tale of two halves. During the first half, as noted above, the Golden Eagles played some of the best ball all year. The second half saw them looking, at times, like the team that was lost without Travis Diener last year. That is to say, they looked horrid and confused, while blowing their 10-point lead from the first half. That’s just the way things are going to go with a young team, though, and I don’t necessarily think the difference was due to any particular adjustments that were (or weren’t) made at the half. Sometimes perfection just can’t continue all day.

9) Over the last few years Marquette has done a series of videos for time-outs where the players say things to pump up the crowd. During the last couple of years, the players have yelled encouragement, sometimes in such an excited manner that it was tough to make out what they were saying at times. During Saturday’s game, there were a lot of shots of Steve Novak calmly encouraging the crowd to make noise. Not exactly the raucous call to action that I was looking for. Really, it felt more like Novak was making a public service announcement. It’s nice and all, but let’s get someone to show some fire.

10) Steve Novak looked really good again this game. He’s still not a banger, and I was not shocked during the Connecticut game earlier in the week when an on screen graphic noted that something like 72% of his career shots came from outside the three-point arc. He’s rebounding better than I ever expected over the last two games, and hopefully can build on that going forward.

11) If I had to pick the one thing that pleased me most about Saturday’s game, it would be that the rotation of big men seems more settled. Chris Grimm and Mike Kinsella are out of the rotation for now, while Ryan Amoroso, Ousmane Barro, and Jamil Lott are taking the bulk of minutes, with Dwight Burke playing a minute here and there. That’s about how I have always expected things to be (with the exception that I thought Lott would play an even bigger role). Let’s hope that the consistency continues going forward, but who knows if it will.

As I noted, Marquette folded down the stretch, enduring a rough second half. But I still feel pretty pleased that they’re in a position where fans can be upset by a 4-point loss to Cincinnati. That’s certainly not where I figured they’d be this year. And if I may, I’ll repeat my mantra for the year: This team is going to be very special in two years.


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