Two games into the 2018-19 season, and the Marquette Golden Eagles are back! Well, not entirely – we’ll have to wait until competition stiffer than UMBC and Bethune-Cookman for a true evaluation – but MU has at least returned to the AP top 25 poll for the first time since Dec. 2, 2013 (no. 24 overall).
For many programs around the country, it’s hardly a rarity to go five years without a ranking, but for the Golden Eagles, it feels like an absolute eternity. And for a certain writer who began his freshman year at MU in the fall of 2013 with the Golden Eagles coming off eight straight NCAA tournament appearances, the program’s collapse into irrelevance soon after still stings.
Take a peak around the country, and it’s clear a lot has changed since December 2013. Things are no different for Marquette, which has undergone nearly unprecedented turnover across the board in five years. Here is an unscientific list of some changes since the last time Marquette cracked the top 25.
Head Coach: Buzz Williams
The enigmatic Williams stewarded the Golden Eagles to five NCAA tournament appearances, three Sweet 16s, one Elite Eight and a Big East regular season championship in his first five seasons before entering the first year of the reformed Big East as the preseason favorite. Things quickly spiraled out of control from there though. Athletic director Larry Williams resigned, the Golden Eagles lost four straight to end the season and miss the tournament, Williams suddenly left for an second-rate opening at Virginia Tech and then he cryptically leaked details about his time in Milwaukee. After a semi-chaotic coaching search that included #ShakaWatch, Marquette hired Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski.
Wojo was left with an almost entirely bare cupboard upon arrival (Marquette had eight scholarship players following transfers in his first season) yet he has recruited well and endeared himself to the university. There have certainly been a few bumps – Marquette was hammered in the first round of Wojciechowski’s lone tourney appearance in 2017, the results have not always matched the on-court talent and the defense was a train wreck for two straight seasons – but Marquette arguably has a brighter future now than it did in the Williams era. It just took some time to get here.
Top Song: "Royals" by Lorde
Top Weekend Box Office: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
In some ways, it’s been awhile – "The Hunger Games" has since released the final two movies of the series – but in others, not much time has passed. Lorde only just turned 22 years old last week! She should be providing senior leadership off the bench for the current Golden Eagles, not years deep into a popular music career.
University President: Fr. Scott Pilarz
This might not be the biggest presidential shift since 2013, but it’s certainly one that has had a massive impact on campus. When Marquette was last ranked, Fr. Scott Pilarz was in his final weeks as university president, having notified the board on Sept. 20 that he would resign at the end of the fall semester. After former president Fr. Robert Wild finished out the year on an interim basis, Marquette tabbed University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee chancellor Michael Lovell as its new man. Lovell is the first lay president in Marquette’s history, has revitalized the look and feel of the entire school, and is seen courtside at almost every men’s basketball game, home or away.
Three-Point Averages: 4.6 makes on 17 attempts per game
Eight games into the 2013-14 season, Marquette was shooting just 27.2 percent on 17 attempts per game (4.6 makes). Those Golden Eagles – built around Davante Gardner’s "and-ones" and Todd Mayo’s frenzied drives – already had two games with only one made three-pointer by Dec. 2.
There is absolutely no universe where Marquette’s current team would finish with one made trey in a game. Through two contests, the Golden Eagles are averaging 11 makes on 29.5 attempts per game (37.3 percent), and they haven’t even hit their stride from beyond the arc yet. Markus Howard made seven threes in 27 minutes on Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, and it wasn’t even close to the best three-point shooting performance in his career. Part of the change is due to a widespread three-point shift across all levels of basketball, but Wojo has also fostered a culture of chucking that simply did not exist at Marquette in 2013.
Chicago Cubs lose 197 games from 2012 to 2013
LeBron James is a two-time defending champ with Miami
December 2013 was so two teams ago for James, and the Cubs were still three years away from winning their historic World Series title (against LeBron’s Cleveland Indians). Oh, and the Warriors were merely 10-8 and en route for a first-round exit as a six-seed in the playoffs when MU was last seen in the poll. Now it takes Golden State until Christmas to rack up eight losses. Simpler times for the NBA.
State of the Big East
The Big East was the biggest question mark in college basketball before the start of the 2013-14 season, as Syracuse, UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and South Florida departed, while Butler, Creighton and Xavier joined the seven remaining Catholic schools to create a 10-team, non-football league. The state of flux in the conference, without the big name schools and ESPN exposure, was reportedly part of the reason Williams left Marquette for the Hokies, but the revamped Big East is now thriving as it begins its sixth season.
The Big East has finished between second and fourth in conference RPI (RIP to the RPI) every year since its re-launch, the partnership with FOX and FS1 has proven advantageous for the league, and almost every team has established a culture of success. Villanova has won two of the last three titles; Butler, Creighton and Xavier have excelled under the brighter spotlight; Seton Hall and Providence have elevated their standings now that they are no longer buried in the old Big East; and expected heavyweights Marquette and Georgetown are finally emerging from their rebuilding periods. Even typical cellar-dweller DePaul has a new arena and a promising 2019 recruiting class to boot.
The conference may not have the brands or the cache of the previous edition, but this version of the Big East is built with a more solid foundation that should stand the test of time.
Giannis Antetokounmpo comes off the bench as a rookie
Matt Flynn is starting for an injured Aaron Rodgers
Ryan Braun is just finishing a PED suspension
Behind Rodgers, Antetokounmpo and Christian Yelich, the state of Wisconsin sports is as good as it’s ever been. But in December 2013, the Packers were flailing without their quarterback, the Brewers were steering a rudderless ship with their franchise player wrapped in scandal and the Bucks were 3-13 en route to the worst season in franchise history.
Marquette received some blowback for their uniform updates prior to its 100th season in 2016-17, but I am all in on these kits. While the previous editions hold many memories for the team’s success while wearing them, they were not the most appealing to the eye. Obviously the side stripes are a must for Marquette, but there was simply too much going on across the rest of the uni, including the odd panel at the bottom of the shorts, the jagged coloring circling the armpit and the multi-colored collar that lined the back of the neck.
This version of the MU jerseys not only harks back upon different eras of blue-and-gold basketball, but it’s also simply a crisp uniform that feels like it could be dropped into any moment in time. My only quibble is that I wish the white unis featured more gold in the side-panel striping, but overall, Marquette has made massive visual upgrades since 2013.
The uniforms are not the only stylistic improvement for the Golden Eagles; the current court looks much better than the old version. With more three-pointers, better jerseys, a cleaner floor and a new arena, 2018 MU basketball is much easier on the eyes than its 2013 counterpart.
Basketball Arena: BMO Harris Bradley Center
Ah, the Bradley Center. Home for 30 years of Marquette basketball, 386 MU wins, hundreds of thousands of fans and millions of memories. Yet, even with all the nostalgia of the old place, a new arena carried more excitement than the prospect of beginning a fourth decade at the BC. Sometimes, you just have to know when to move on.
The Fiserv Forum is yet to host a truly massive Marquette game – it will get its first crack on Dec. 8 with the rival Wisconsin Badgers – but it has more than lived up to its billing thus far. Over the long haul, the building should have a noticeable impact on the program’s atmosphere, attendance and recruiting.
In just five short years, Marquette has gone through the gauntlet – disappointment, rebuilding, short-term success, fatal flaws – and come out the other side with fresh faces at the head coach and school president spots, an improved roster, a more entertaining style, a top-notch building and a no. 24 ranking.
The program’s current edition can still climb higher yet, though its current status in the AP poll is rather tenuous. Marquette travels to Bloomington on Wednesday night as the underdog for an attractive matchup with the Indiana Hoosiers. A loss there will likely bounce MU from the rankings once again – but unlike in 2013, this squad has the right mix of talent and fortitude to work its way back into the poll.