Freshmen bring much needed athleticism to defensive end

Freshmen+Theo+John+%28left%29+and+Greg+Elliott+%28second+from+right%29+pose+for+a+picture+with+teammates+while+fellow+freshman+Ike+Eke+takes+their+picture.

Photo by Andrew Himmelberg

Freshmen Theo John (left) and Greg Elliott (second from right) pose for a picture with teammates while fellow freshman Ike Eke takes their picture.

Head coach Steve Wojciechowski has established a tradition of thrusting freshmen into big roles, starting with former forward Sandy Cohen thee seasons ago.

In the last two seasons, a freshman had the highest minutes per game average on the team. It was Henry Ellenson in 2015 and Sam Hauser in 2016.

That trend may continue this year, as the Golden Eagles brought in four freshmen, all providing athleticism and starting potential, albeit with a few unknowns.

Wojciechowski recruited all four freshmen — Jamal Cain, Ike Eke, Greg Elliott and Theo John — for their ability to defend and snag offensive rebounds. The staff has especially high expectations for John on the boards.

“Coach Wojo has been stressing to me to crash the glass both offensively and defensively,” John said. “He’ll get on me and hold me accountable if I don’t do so, so I appreciate that.”

Wojciechowski said he believes this could be the most athletic team since he started at Marquette in 2014.

“Last year, we didn’t necessarily have the balance that we strived (sic) to have,” Wojciechowski said. “We wanted to improve our size, athleticism and length, and those four guys fix that box. That’s something that we went into that recruiting cycle looking for, and I think those guys have those characteristics.”

While John is the most athletic, Elliott is also expected to contribute. He was the last recruit to sign and did so after an explosive senior year. Elliott averaged 28 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game at East English Village High School in Detroit.

“We’ve been pushing each other a lot in practice so that once it comes down to that big moment, we can make the big stop or grab the rebound.” Elliott said.

The big question is which freshman will answer the bell, and the Golden Eagles very much need someone to answer it. Stopping big men and athletic wings was one of the team’s weakest points last season.

In order to avoid similar problems this year, the coaches have the freshmen going against upperclassmen in practice. For instance, John has squared off against junior center Matt Heldt since the first day they arrived on campus.

“Theo was the first guy on campus, and I came down here earlier than expected,” Heldt said. “It’s been three months of going at each other. We’ve figured out each other’s moves, and we really challenge each other.”

Heldt put particular efforts into making sure the young guys will be ready for the rigors of a full season, which can wear out even veteran players.

“It is such a long season and especially in the BIG EAST,” Heldt said. “Your depth is a big part of being successful, and for us to be deep … it is going to help us a lot.”

Eke will look to bolster Marquette’s depth and athleticism. His journey to Marquette has been a process: he moved from Nigeria to Detroit when he was in eighth grade. He did not pick up organized basketball until he reached University of Detroit Jesuit High School.

At U-D Jesuit, he honed his craft and began to discover how to use his 6-foot-3 frame. Still, having come to the game so late in life, Eke has plenty to fine tune. Fortunately for him, John is there to help, pressing him in practice every day.

“He’s a big, strong kid,” Eke said of John. “Going into practice with him, it’s like war to me. You have to come out every day and fight.”

Wojciechowski said he hopes the result of these defensive battles will be a hardened, game-ready freshman class by late December, just in time for BIG EAST play to start.

“It’s been a lot of physical play so far,” Wojciechowski said. “We weren’t able to replicate some of the teams that we’d face in the BIG EAST play because we weren’t very physical last year. Now there’s a lot of big bodies which is great.”

Wojciechowski also believes the freshmen will have an impact from the opening tip with a challenging non-conference schedule.

“It will help us be prepared for it,” Wojciechowski said. “Our non-conference schedule is very difficult with a lot of blue-collar-like teams, so these young guys are going to have to grow up quick.”