Back in the early fall of 2005, I was having a beer with a law school buddy of mine at one of the local haunts in Uptown. (Liquor Lyle's. I don't know if I've taken any of you there. The place is a fucking trip, although the ambience has changed dramatically since they outlawed smoking in bars in Minneapolis. Anyway, it's dark, it's cramped, it smells awful, the Grain Belt is plentiful, and you can't find a waitress with less than 14 tattoos. God, I miss Lyle's.) My buddy went to college at Oregon, but his dad was a professor at UConn and he lived in Boston for a long time, so he knew a lot about college basketball in general and the Big East specifically.
We got to talking about Marquette's move to the Big East. Unsurprisingly, I was highly skeptical. (I wouldn't say I was panicked, but that's only because I wasn't living in Milwaukee at the time. The physical separation and the fact that I was only able to see a handful of games every year somewhat tempered my emotions – though I still got pissed off enough to fire a remote at the television after the Marquette – Arizona game in 2004.) I thought this was a classic "be careful what you ask for…" situation; I had visions of Marquette becoming the Northwestern of the Big East. I also mentioned that I thought (or hoped, to be more accurate) that Crean was on his last legs after the twin debacles of the 2003-04 and '04-'05 seasons. Sure, I knew he probably wouldn't get canned, but anytime your squad struggles to break 40 in a home NIT game against Western Michigan, and Marcus Jackson is playing point forward, and your No. 2 returning scoring option is cockbag extraordinaire Ryan Amoroso, and Dameon Mason is the latest starter to leave the program … I mean, his seat had to be getting a little warm.
So my buddy asked: "What does his recruiting class look like this year?" I said I didn't know all that much about the freshmen. I'd heard a bit about Wes, after the hubbub with his dad being a Commie expat, and I knew we had a kid from Chicago. And then there was a kid from Indiana who was going to be taking over for Diener. I knew next to nothing about him, but the talk was that he was the jewel of the class, a 5'8" (in high tops) freak who had a 48-inch vertical (or some nonsense like that). He was runner-up to some honkey for Mr. Basketball in Indiana, which is apparently a big deal.
But that was it. That was all I knew. And I followed as best I could from afar in the '05-'06 season, noting Dom's eye-popping numbers in the box scores – 28 vs. West Virginia (though with seven turnovers), followed up by 29 at DePaul, 18 at Notre Dame, including one of the most incredible dunks I've ever seen – but there weren't many games televised in Minneapolis (primarily because we stunk out loud the two years prior). And then, to top it off, the one game I was most interested in seeing – Marquette vs. Alabama in the first round of the tourney – was such a rout in the first half that the Minneapolis CBS affiliate switched to a different game. I spent most of the second half with my eyes on the ticker, watching Marquette creep closer and closer. Finally, they went back to the game – just in time to show Novak clanking the wide-open three that would've tied it. (On a related note: Fuckshitcockassballsucker.)
So, when we moved back to Milwaukee that summer, I still didn't know that much about DJ or the Amigos. The first game I saw, in person, was an exhibition vs. Cardinal Stritch. (Or Concordia. Or University School. Or fucking MATC. I can't remember.) I watched from student seats behind the band, just across the aisle from D3S and Charlie's Gunt. I had spent the summer studying for the bar, so I knew even less about incoming recruits than the year before. When Cubillan checked in for the first time, I yelled to D3S: "Who's that guy?" Before he had a chance to respond, D3S's longtime friend and possible soul mate, Warrior Brad, chirped up: "That's Cubillan. He's taking over the point when DJ goes pro after this year." Hmm. OK. I thought this was your garden-variety bullshit from WB until the games against Duke (whoa) and Valpo (kid's got stones the size of dumbbells).
Now, to paraphrase Coach Buzz, I'm not smart enough to break down what happened to DJ after that. I'll suggest three things, though:
- The drive-kick game that was so potent Dom's freshman year evaporated after Novak graduated. Without a gunner waiting on the wing, teams were sagging to the middle whenever Dom drove to the basket.
- Compounding this problem was the lack of a reliable post presence. Without anyone to dish to, either on the wing or down low, when the double-team came, attacking the rim became significantly more difficult.
- Perhaps most importantly, our expectations for DJ became wildly unrealistic, and, instead of focusing on all the things he does well, we started concentrating on the few things he doesn't do well.
To some extent, I guess that's to be expected. You see a college player as good as DJ was in his first year, and you anticipate that, over his career, he's going to become a better three-point shooter, a better free throw shooter. Sometimes, that just doesn't happen. You can work with the guy on his form for three years, but, at the end of the day, he's not a natural shooter.
Now, there's one other part to the dynamic here, and that's Jerel. Jerel has transformed himself from a raw, talented, turnover-prone defensive menace to a polished, poised, less-turnover-prone all-around force. There's been a progression – in fact, a remarkably consistent progression – from Year One to Year Four, and now he's gotten to the point where he can go into a hostile arena against a desperate opponent and pour in 27 points, and almost every shot comes within the flow of the offense. He's light-years removed from where he was as a freshman, especially in regard to the turnovers and playing within himself.
For Dom, though, the one aspect of his game that was suspect as a freshman (shooting) remains his bugaboo. That said, he has made tremendous strides in other parts of his game; just to name one, he is now probably a better on-ball defender than Jerel. (Who would have thought we'd be saying that three years ago?) He runs the offense efficiently. He defends the 2-on-1 break better than anyone I've ever seen – how many times has he swatted the shot, intercepted the pass, taken a charge when he's the only guy back on the break? His look-away, one-handed bullet pass is the stuff that SportsCenter "Top 10 Plays" is made of. It's gotten to the point where I'm sending D3S two text messages a game saying: "We're really, really, really going to miss Dom next year."
Most of all, though, he wins. We've won 20, 24, 25, and (so far) 18 games during Dom's four years at Marquette. Not too bad for a short kid who can't shoot.