How Xavier's J.P. Macura pushes the boundary between competitor and agitator

Xavier guard <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/126246/" data-ylk="slk:J.P. Macura">J.P. Macura</a> is one of college basketball’s most notorious instigators. (Getty)
Xavier guard J.P. Macura is one of college basketball’s most notorious instigators. (Getty)

Three men who have coached Xavier’s J.P. Macura each have the same unusual advice for opponents eager to rattle him.

Try your best to ignore him. 

Don’t respond when he starts yapping at your best players in hopes of getting under their skin and goading them into a trash talk battle.

“Usually it makes him play harder and compete with more passion,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “I think it brings out the best in him.”

Don’t retaliate when he sinks a key basket and stares down your head coach as revenge for not recruiting him.

“He needs a sense of drama,” Xavier assistant coach Luke Murray said. “When he has a grudge against the opponent, that’s when he’s at his best.”

Resist the urge to hurl insults at him from the stands or take swipes at him on social media no matter how much he seems to be asking for it.

“I wouldn’t tweet at him, I wouldn’t make posters and I wouldn’t make chants against him,” his former AAU coach Jeremy Miller said. “It just adds to his fire.”

Macura is college basketball’s most notorious instigator, a wisecracking bundle of energy with a legendary competitive streak, a knack for elevating his level of play when he feels slighted and a desire to do whatever it takes to help his team win. The 6-foot-5 senior guard is revered at Xavier for his fearlessness and relentless effort and reviled elsewhere for his on-court antics and gamesmanship.

Although Macura has blossomed into Xavier’s second-leading scorer and one of its most complete all-around players, his mentality is as important to the Musketeers as his production. He is Xavier’s emotional leader, a player whose contagious confidence imbues the 10th-ranked Musketeers (15-2) with the belief that they’re capable of challenging Villanova for the Big East title and contending for the program’s first Final Four.

Of course, there’s a fine line between confident and cocky or scrappy and dirty, and Macura sometimes crosses it in the eyes of Xavier’s rivals.

His most infamous incident came after a victory over crosstown rival Cincinnati last month when Bearcats coach Mick Cronin charged at him during the postgame handshake line. Cronin later blamed Macura for provoking the confrontation by telling him to “‘eff off’ three times before, during and after the game,” an accusation both Mack and Macura have vehemently denied.

“What he said in the press conference about me saying the same thing three times, that did not happen,” Macura said. “That is not true.”

Macura cannot deny his role in some other incidents that have provoked opposing fans. He became a villain at Butler two years ago with a needless tomahawk dunk in the final seconds of a 15-point win and cemented his status by mockingly tweeting “The Xavier Way” after a victory over the Bulldogs last week. He also earned boos and catcalls at Marquette earlier this season when he drew a technical foul on center Henry Froling by embellishing a shove with an Oscar-worthy flop.

At Wisconsin, he inspired profane chants and outraged Tweets when he punctuated a November road victory by derisively gator chomping in the direction of the Badgers student section. Wisconsin fans had targeted Macura for much of the game and had also chanted “Sweet 16” at Xavier in reference to a 2016 buzzer-beating upset at the hands of the Badgers.

“Sometimes I get a little too competitive and it’s hard to control things, but I’ve been working on that,” Macura said. “I play with a lot of energy and I do whatever my team needs me to do to be successful. A lot of fans don’t like me because of it, but that’s fine. I don’t really care too much what they think.”

J.P. Macura taunts Wisconsin fans late in his team’s victory at the Kohl Center earlier this season. (Getty)
J.P. Macura taunts Wisconsin fans late in his team’s victory at the Kohl Center earlier this season. (Getty)

Macura’s occasional run-ins with opponents have sometimes put the Xavier coaches in a tough spot trying to figure out how to discipline him. Mack’s goal has been to rein in Macura without robbing him of the qualities that make him special.

“There are always teachable moments,” Mack said. “We’ve had a ton of conversations, but I don’t want to neuter him either.”

It’s difficult to explain where Macura’s fiery competitiveness comes from because it was never the norm in his suburban Minneapolis household.

Macura’s mother is a flight attendant and his father works in sales. While Sue Ann and Paul Macura’s three kids each played sports in high school, neither eldest son David nor daughter Keri Anna attacked practices, workouts and games with anywhere near the same fervor J.P. did.

Only J.P. would shovel ankle-deep snow off the family’s backyard court in the middle of winter and shoot jump shots until his hands were numb. Only J.P. would chuck the basketball into the bushes if he lost a game of one-on-one or demand best two out of three if his father beat him in H-O-R-S-E. Only J.P. would spend weekend afternoons watching adult rec basketball games for hours at a gym near his house in anticipation of the moment someone would finally sub in the middle-school kid in the bleachers.

“One day when I was rebounding for him, he set a goal of making 10 free throws in a row, but he kept making 9 of 10, 9 of 10, 9 of 10,” Paul Macura said. “About 450 shots later, I said, ‘J.P., I’m starving. How about we go have lunch or something and come back?'”

Even though Macura’s tireless work ethic and insatiable will to win were apparent when he entered high school, he was far from a clear-cut Division I prospect at that time. None of the state’s high-level grassroots programs showed much interest in a slender 5-foot-10 combo guard on the freshman team at Minnesota high school basketball power Lakeville North.

When his unheralded, unsponsored AAU team faced the state of Minnesota’s most star-laden program during his freshman year in high school, Macura showed up to the game holding a grudge. The slender, floppy-haired guard’s goal was to make the opposing coach regret pursuing other players instead of him.

“Every time he hit a three, he would look at me like, ‘Why didn’t you recruit me?'” D1 Minnesota coach Jeremy Miller recalled “I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I had never seen him before and he was busting us up.”

Macura received the invitation he craved to join D1 Minnesota the following year, but he once again did not make Lakeville North’s varsity basketball team. Wary of ruining his senior-laden team’s chemistry in the midst of a 30-win season, Lakeville North coach John Oxton opted not to call up Macura and had him play a year of JV ball instead.

“To be honest, the plan was to have him play JV at the beginning, earn his way a little bit and eventually get him some varsity time,” Oxton said. “What ended up happening was we got on a roll and at a certain point I felt like if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. J.P. at that time was a really a bad defender to be quite honest with you. He had some things he could do well too, but he was skinny and weak.”

J.P. Macura won a state championship at Lakeville North High as a senior. (via Paul Macura)
J.P. Macura won a state championship at Lakeville North High as a senior. (via Paul Macura)

As the only non-varsity player on his AAU team, Macura earned an unflattering nickname. His teammates called him JV instead of J.P., a jab that stung Macura yet also further motivated him to add muscle and work on his game.

Thanks to a timely growth spurt and a breakout season on the AAU circuit, Macura racked up 10 scholarship offers from Divison I colleges before he played his first meaningful minutes on the Lakeville North varsity team as a junior. Offers continued to pour in thereafter as he blossomed into one of the top scorers in the state as a junior before putting together a historic senior season that ended with him sinking a deep game-winning 3-pointer in the state semifinals before erupting for 43 points in the title game.

Although Macura showcased range to well behind the arc, impeccable court vision and the ability to attack closeouts off the dribble and finish through contact at the rim, it was often his toughness and competitiveness that appealed to college coaches most.

Macura relished the chance to outperform players more highly touted than himself, so before AAU games, he often asked his coaches to point out the opposing team’s most decorated prospect. Macura then made it his mission to guard that player no matter his position and yap at him the entire game in an effort to get under his skin.

“Whereas most kids get into that jaw-jacking stuff and it impacts them negatively, he’s different,” said Nick Carroll, one of Macura’s former AAU coaches who still works with him every summer. “That kind of stuff gets him going. He builds it in his head where it’s you against him. He feeds off that.”

When a bigger, stronger opposing player from Chicago tried to intimidate him during Iowa State’s team camp the summer before his senior year of high school, Macura did not back down. The kid from suburban Minneapolis instead responded with a display of moxie and quick wit that inspired former Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg to offer a scholarship on the spot.

“J.P. gets in the kid’s face and tells him, ‘I have more offers than your ACT score,'” Miller recalled. “We would joke, ‘You know these guys aren’t from Lakeville, Minnesota, man.’ He would say, I don’t care where they’re from.’ He’s always had that attitude and spirit about him. He has no back-down in him.”

Butler was initially Macura’s top choice for college until coach Brad Stevens bolted for the Boston Celtics. Forced to consider other options more seriously, Macura chose Xavier over the likes of Minnesota, Butler and Creighton because he liked that the Musketeers possessed a winning culture, a reputation for developing talent and a coach who was as fiercely competitive as he was.

While Xavier has been an ideal fit in the long run, the transition was difficult at first.

None of Macura’s new teammates had ever encountered a freshman who attacked every drill as though his life depended on being the best, who confronted anyone that didn’t match his intensity in practice and who kicked the ball into the stands in a fit of rage if he missed a couple open jumpers in a row. Most Xavier players had never met someone who cared as much about winning as Macura, whether it was a free throw shooting contest after practice or something silly like word games or video games.

“You’ve got this young guy who was about his way,” Mack said. “That can rub some people the wrong way at first.”

J.P. celebrates with Trevon Bluiett after a victory over Northern Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
J.P. celebrates with Trevon Bluiett after a victory over Northern Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Macura displayed flashes of promise as a freshman, but he played sparingly because he wasn’t trustworthy at either end of the floor.

Having been the primary scoring threat on his high school team the previous two years, Macura didn’t yet understand the difference between a high-percentage shot and a shot he was simply capable of making. Too often he confidently hoisted wild shots instead of involving his teammates. He also had a bad habit of sometimes attempting spectacular passes when just a simple one would do.

Macura actually possessed the long arms, lateral quickness and ball-hawking instincts to be a solid perimeter defender, but expending energy at that end of the floor had never been a priority for him before he arrived at Xavier. That showed as a freshman when opposing guards would blow right by him whenever he allowed his focus to drift on defense or got himself out of position by gambling for a steal.

Since his rocky freshman season, Macura has worked to address those flaws.

He’s still prone to an occasional heat-check 3-pointer or ill-timed behind-the-back pass, but he has learned to value each possession and to score more efficiently. Not only is he a more capable man-to-man defender now, he’s also a weapon pressuring the ball, shooting gaps and deflecting passes at the top of the 1-3-1 zone that Mack has used as an effective change of pace the past three years.

“The 1-3-1 has allowed J.P. to go from a good man-to-man defender to an elite zone defender,” Xavier assistant coach Luke Murray said. “He’s allowed a little more freedom to freelance and it really opens the game up for him at both ends. He’s able to create steals and deflections, which gets him some opportunities in the open floor. He’s the lynchpin of that defense. His energy is why it has been so good for us.”

As Macura’s Xavier teammates have gotten to know him better, they’ve learned to appreciate his quirks. They realize now that his confidence and competitiveness are assets to their team and that everything he does is motivated by the desire to win.

Of course, opposing fans aren’t nearly as understanding, a fact of life that can be difficult on Macura’s family and friends. There are times when Macura’s father has called on security guards to help deal with particularly vicious hecklers or has teared up reading a hateful social media post directed at his son.

Paul Macura understands his son is no angel, yet he wishes rival fans could spend time with him in a non-competitive setting. Then perhaps they would see the kid he knows, the devoted grandson who is generous with his time around kids and seldom misses a chance to help those less fortunate than him.

When Paul walked into J.P.’s room on a memorably cold December day about a dozen years ago, he caught a glimpse of his son stuffing a letter inside a box. Paul asked J.P. what he was doing, but his son revealed only that he would be back soon before disappearing out the front door of the family’s home with the box cradled under his arm.

Two hours later, J.P. returned with $500 in the box. He announced to his family that he had collected some money from the neighbors and wanted to donate it to the family of an elementary school classmate whose father had recently committed suicide.

“It still brings me to tears because it’s amazing how kind-hearted he is,” Paul Macura said, voice cracking with emotion. “When you hear people who don’t know him say they hate him, it’s pretty tough. He spent two hours in the zero-degree weather because he wanted to do something nice for this family before Christmas.”

J.P. Macura is more realistic than his father. He knows opposing fans can only judge him off what they see on the basketball floor, an intensely competitive provocateur who seeks out reasons to feel slighted by an opponent, uses them to motivate himself and does anything he can to help his team win.

“In reality I would say that I’m a pretty nice guy,” Macura said. “I’m very giving and caring. I really care about a lot of people. But it’s difficult to show that sometimes when I’m so competitive on the basketball court. When the game starts, I play to win.”

– – – – – – –

Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next