Our current age of analytics tends to devalue the idea of being “clutch.” For instance, we see more NBA games nowadays that aren’t close at the end. Not too long ago, there were so many, they almost felt manufactured … not that the league would ever be accused of meddling with results or anything.
It’s not difficult to measure “clutchness” if you want to evaluate it out statistically. You can just pick out the shots that had the biggest impact on win probability if you’d like. Most often, those are shots that came at the end of close games. However, part of the analytical approach to the modern game is the idea that three points is greater than two, but three points always counts as three points, whether it be at the start or end of a game. When you score them matters less than that you simply do.
Still, basketball is entertainment, and there’s little more entertaining or thrilling than a shot that ties or wins a game. And lately, the guy who’s been hitting those shots for Marquette has been Koby McEwen.
In Marquette’s double-overtime win against Xavier Wednesday, McEwen was scoreless until there was 5:01 left in regulation. He then posted Marquette’s next 17 points, including its final 10 in regulation and all seven in the first OT. The fun part? Between the start of the run and when McEwen finally missed a three with 2:41 remaining in the opening extra frame, he didn’t miss a shot. He went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line, 3-for-3 from two and even hit a three for good measure. Xavier couldn’t even stop him when they fouled him. His first two buckets of overtime were and-ones.
This came after McEwen hit a prayer of a shot at the end of regulation against then-No. 13 Butler last Friday to force overtime, then scored five points in nine seconds to take an eight-point Bulldog lead and bring it within a more-reasonable four. It then went to one when Sacar Anim hit a three after MU forced a five-second violation. Anim also found the touch in the second overtime against Xavier.
The odd part about McEwen is he’s been rather up-and-down during the normal run of play this season. He’s only shooting 33 percent on the year, though over half of his made shots have been from three-point land. He’s had six games where he’s either had just a single bucket or failed to get a basket at all. Yet you also have to look at who he’s had good games against. He scored 23 points against Purdue and 19 against Wisconsin. He wouldn’t reach the 20-plus strata again until Marquette beat Villanova with help from his 22. His per-game average fell below 10 when he scored just five points on 2-of-10 shooting in a frustrating OT loss to Providence, and that average wouldn’t go back above double-digits until his 18-point performance Wednesday. His big games have almost exclusively come against good teams or at the most-needed times.
Admittedly, there is a flaw here. Marquette has struggled with inconsistency under Steve Wojciechowski, which means another player who runs hot and cold doesn’t exactly help matters. You’d rather a guy’s standard deviation from his per-game average, shooting percentage, and just about every other stat, be a little lower than McEwen’s. But in a conference like the BIG EAST, where it seems like any team can beat any other team on the right night, having a guy who can walk into opposing gyms and not just drain the occasional clutch shot, but drain shot after shot into the faces of rabid opposing student sections, seems like something every coach in the conference would envy.
Setting aside Michael Jordan as not just clutch but simply the best ever, despite making Craig Ehlo famous or setting up his second of three retirements the best way possible, the next-biggest name associated with basketball clutchness is Robert Horry. Big Shot Rob had so many huge makes, you would probably never guess, despite his seven NBA championships, he was never an all-star. McEwen has a long way to go to reach Horry’s plane, but Robert can at least serve as an example to McEwen of a guy who made his livelihood off being good when it mattered most.
McEwen also hails from Toronto, a town that’s produced some of the most clutch moments in the history of sports, ranging from Joe Carter’sWorld Series walk-off to “the bat flip” by Jose Bautistato the crazy shot by Kawhi Leonard in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. Maybe there’s something in the Pizza Pizza or Mr. Sub or whatever other restaurants you only know of because you’ve either been to Canada or seen their billboards during Blue Jays’ games.
Whatever it is that gets into McEwen during the end of games, it’s notable, and it’s made him a commodity on the rise. Keep in mind, he’s still a junior. He has a chance to provide leadership to what is supposed to be a talented incoming freshman class for Marquette next year. The way he’s doing it at the end of games right now, I don’t think any MU fan will have qualms him continuing to assert himself when things matter most.
WE SHOULDN’T FORGET ONE THING: If McEwen’s clutch play hadn’t become a theme, or if the Xavier game had been a little more ho-hum, this blog would have dwelled upon Wojo’s almost inexcusable mistake of not knowing the correct score and calling for Brendan Bailey to intentionally foul with 20 seconds left and the score tied near the end of regulation in the loss to Butler.
If you think “inexcusable” is a strong word, consider the nature of what I’ll call the “analytical segment” of Marquette’s fanbase — a group of fans who runs blogs and podcasts, is highly active on Twitter and, notably, is quite numbers-savvy. Even if you don’t have time to digest them, just look at some of the charts Andrei Greska posts over on Paint Touches, or Alan Bykowski’swork at Cracked Sidewalks. Consider that just about every Anonymous Eagle game preview discusses “tempo-free stats,” a staple of KenPom. These voices almost compete to be smarter and more analytical than each other when it comes to their online “coverage” of Marquette Basketball … and they’re just fans. Not coaches, players or credentialed media, mind you. Just fans. Ones with big online presences, yes, but just fans.
When you have a fanbase this crazy over numbers, and a coach, with a scoreboard literally directly over his left shoulder at Hinkle Fieldhouse(both Wojo and the scoreboard are in the background of the linked picture), forgets the two most important numbers in a game — the score — you can’t blame this rather loyal, important, vocal segment of fans if their frustration boils over, and continues to the morning after.
You also can’t have your fans looking like they have a better understanding of the game’s numbers than the staff. Marquette’s fanbase has a uniquely strong understanding, but Wojo doesn’t strike me as the most analytical guy. Some Marquette people like to think Wojo is a good fit because he’s kept the program in good standing academically and ethically. But I start to wonder if he doesn’t fit the personality of the fanbase. And, as it is, any coach won’t feel like a fit when he loses games like that one.
DePAUL IS DeNEXT FOE: Marquette comes home to play the Blue Demons Saturday at 1 p.m. It’s their only game this coming week.
Photo: Getty Images