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Can Marquette finally overcome the curse of Jameel McKay?

Has a team plagued with bad defenses found a new identity?

Avid college basketball fans may remember Iowa State forward Jameel McKay. But how can a player who never played a Marquette game have cursed Marquette? Well, that is where you would be wrong. Jameel McKay played one scrimmage in a Marquette uniform. 2013s Marquette Madness featured a highly hyped Marquette team, including incoming JUCO transfer McKay. But before the season would start, the Milwaukee native would transfer and Marquette has not recovered since.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, Marquette was on a very prestigious run. The Dwayne Wade Final Four run in 2003 is easy to remember. After missing the NCAA tournament the two years following that run, Marquette would make the tournament 8 straight years. This run would feature fan-favorite players Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Wesley Matthews, Steve Novak, Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom, Dwight Buycks, and Vander Blue. Each of the last three years of this run, the Golden Eagles were in the Sweet 16 and made the Elite 8 in the 2013 tournament.

Following this incredible run, it’s no surprise that Marquette entered the 2013-14 season at #17 in the AP poll. The excitement was real heading into their first major matchup of the season hosting #10 Ohio State. Ohio State would destroy the dreams of the local Milwaukee crowd (especially for Freshman like me who camped out for hours in the cold for their first big Marquette game), exposing this team’s deficiencies in a 52-35 win (just 35 points, do you understand how depressing this was to watch in person?).

This middling Marquette team would spend most of the season on the bubble before losing their last four games (two in 2OT by 1 point) to finish 17-15 and miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 8 years.

After finishing with less than 22 wins for the first time at Marquette, Buzz WIlliams would suddenly bounce for Virginia Tech. Marquette brought in Steve Wojciechowski and with many Buzz players deciding to leave, Marquette finished with their first losing season (13-19, 4-14 in the Big East) since 1998-99 (shoutout Matt Carlino though because without him MU probably doesn’t win a Big East game). On the backs of the next two freshman classes, Marquette would slightly recover. Freshman Henry Ellenson (and Matt Heldt) and transfer Luke Fischer would lead Marquette to 20 wins in 2015-16, but the team would still miss the tournament.

The next four seasons would be led by Markus Howard. As a freshman, he would lead the team in scoring as they returned to the NCAA tournament. As a senior, he would lead the nation in scoring in a season that did not feature an NCAA tournament. Howard helped Marquette reach some peaks, like beating #1 Villanova in 2017, being ranked #10 in the AP poll, and two NCAA tournaments in 3 years (no tournament in 2020).

How could a team with Markus Howard be cursed you might ask. Just look at who Marquette had to play in the tournament the two years they made it. In 2017 as a 10 seed, Marquette would go into halftime with a 40-39 lead on 7 seed South Carolina before they would blow us out in the second half on their way to the Final Four.

Okay, but Marquette was a 5 seed in 2019, they must have done well them right? Have you heard of Ja Morant? Well, Marquette got the luxury of playing the future number two overall pick in the next NBA Draft’s four-loss team in the first round. Morant torched Marquette for 17 points, 16 (SIXTEEN) assists, and 11 rebounds en route to an 83-64 win. If that is not a curse, then I don’t know what is.

Oh, and what did Jameel McKay do in his two seasons at Iowa State? As a great defensive player who also averaged 11 points and 8 rebounds, he helped them with back to back seasons of at least 23 wins and two NCAA tournament appearances (including a tournament win his senior season).

The departure of McKay, the Big-12’s 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year, is symbolic of exactly what Marquette has missed/struggled with the last 8 years. Marquette, especially under Steve Wojciechowski, has struggled mightily on the defensive end. But under Shaka Smart, have they turned it around? Currently, in KenPom, they feature the 23rd-best defense, a ranking that has been rising with their recent great play.

Even better than seeing a high-ranking defense, what is clear watching this team is that they have an identity on the defensive end of the floor. They count deflections, run presses, and communicate with intensity. This Marquette team has embraced being great on defense and that might be exactly what Marquette needed to return to consistent national prominence.