Marquette Wire

Stretching for a stretch four

Who will play power forward post-Ellenson?

Sandy+Cohen+is+a+strong+defensive+player+for+Wojciechowski%27s+squad.
Sandy Cohen is a strong defensive player for Wojciechowski's squad.

Sandy Cohen is a strong defensive player for Wojciechowski's squad.

Photo by Mike Carpenter

Photo by Mike Carpenter

Sandy Cohen is a strong defensive player for Wojciechowski's squad.

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There’s an old cliche in sports, “Whenever an important player leaves a team, you can’t replace their production with just one person — You do it by committee.”

Men’s basketball has a Henry Ellenson-shaped hole to fill, and guess what? They’re going to replace him by committee.

Head coach Steve Wojciechowski delivered the line perfectly, “You don’t replace it with one person.”

Ellenson posted monster numbers last season – 561 points, 321 rebounds, 59 assists, 49 blocks and 27 steals – and was the only player on the team to play more than 1,000 minutes. There aren’t many players in the country who could fill that hole on their own.

Last season Wojciechowski rolled with a mammoth front line in Ellenson and Luke Fischer, two 6-foot-11 big men. This season he still has Fischer, but he doesn’t have a natural power forward like Ellenson. Matt Heldt is a 6-foot-10 center and he’ll play some minutes next to Fischer, but the third year head coach said there will be four guards “pretty much the entire time.”

It’s fair to label this Golden Eagle squad as undersized, the roster makeup is no mistake. The BIG EAST conference and college basketball in general are shifting to smaller, faster, stretchier lineups – and that starts at the power forward position.

Katin Reinhardt, Sandy Cohen, Sam Hauser and Jajuan Johnson provide Marquette with options at the stretch four position, or the “other guard” spot as they call it. All four of these players are wings who would naturally line up at shooting guard or small forward, but with players like Josh Hart, Trevon Bluiett and Nigel Hayes playing power forward against Marquette, there’s no room for two ground-bound, slower, paint-based big men on the court.

“(That’s) the way the game’s going right now,” Reinhardt said. “Teams are liking the style of play with smaller guards you know, and being able to play with four guards on the floor and one big.”

Reinhardt has never played the stretch four position, but his skill set suggests the transition will be a minor one.

“I can shoot the ball very well,” Reinhardt said. “It’s going to make me be able to have a lot of opportunities to get in the paint and find guys. And I’m excited because I haven’t played on a team where we could shoot the ball this well so me loving to pass and getting in the lane and finding guys that can knock shots down, I’m more excited about that.”

For Hauser, the biggest change won’t necessarily be the new position, but rather making the leap from high school basketball to the Division I level.

“Obviously you’ve got to be a lot more physical than high school,” Hauser said. “Our conference is physical and the guys we’re going to be going against are big and strong, stronger than I am. That’s something I’ve worked on a lot since I got here. I’m just not backing down from anyone and playing my game and pretty much just doing whatever it takes.”

At 6-foot-7, the Stevens Point, Wisconsin, native is the tallest guard on the roster. He believes the stretch four isn’t a temporary position for him, but an opportunity to provide value to the program in the long-term.

“Some teams might not have a Nigel Hayes or a (Trevon) Bluiett, and they might have a bigger guy who I can run around the floor, come off screens and get open shots or open up things for others as well,” Hauser said. “So I think I can be pretty good at that position.”

Sandy Cohen is the most unique player in the pool of potential stretch fours and he’s spent more time at the position than any of the others.

“I’m probably one of the few guys that are versatile to be able to guard the one through the four and maybe at times even the five if need be,” Cohen said. “I believe that really does separate me from certain guys on the team.”

The junior struggled in BIG EAST play last year after an impressive non-conference run. After bulking up for his sophomore year, the challenge was a mental one, rather than physical.

“It was difficult at times,” Cohen said. “It really can get in your head and mess up kind of your spirit and when you get on the court it kind of shows so just no matter what you’ve got to keep your hopes high.”

Senior Jajuan Johnson finished his junior year playing the best basketball of his career and his talents certainly translate to the stretch four position. However, the former top-50 recruit stressed that his natural position is as a wing player and not a power forward.

“If our bigs get in foul trouble, I’ll be playing the four a little bit,” Johnson said. “But no, my natural position is the three, or the two.”

In four guard sets, positions are fluid, so Johnson will frequently assume the duties of the power forward even when positioned as a two or three guard. What may be more important than the spot in which he lines up is how he combines with the players he shares the court with, but the Memphis, Tennessee, native isn’t concerned about that.

“With my game, the way I play, I can play with anybody,” Johnson said. “I can pass, I can score, run the floor. So any guard that’s on the floor with me I can play with.”

Though Marquette’s roster may lack size, the team certainly does not lack confidence.

“There era of the ‘undersized’ team is here and has been here,” Wojciechowski said. “This isn’t some like unusual experiment. Like, ‘oh my gosh I can’t believe they’re going that.’ I mean, the national champions played four guards. … If you’re undersized, it doesn’t mean you’re undermanned.”

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