Big East Season Preview: Marquette Golden Eagles

Win McNamee

How will Marquette improve on a 2012-13, which saw a share of the Big East title and an Elite Eight appearance?

2012-13 Record: 26-9 (14-4), T-1st in Big East

Head Coach: Buzz Williams, entering his sixth year at Marquette. Career overall record: 136-71, 1 Big East Championship, 5 NCAA tournament appearances.

Key Returnees: Jamil Wilson, Davante Gardner, Chris Otule, Derrick Wilson

Departures: Junior Cadougan (Graduated), Trent Lockett (Graduated), Vander Blue (NBA Draft)

Additions: Deonte Burton, John Dawson, JaJuan Johnson, Duane Wilson, Jameel McKay (but not really)

Projected Starting Lineup: Derrick Wilson- G, Todd Mayo- G, Juan Anderson- F, Jamil Wilson- F, Chris Otule- C

Big non-conference games: November 16 vs. Ohio State, November 28, 29 and December 1 at Wooden Legacy, December 7 at Wisconsin, December 21 vs. New Mexico in Las Vegas.

2012-13 Recap:

Marquette enters 2013-14 coming off of a season that started poorly but then morphed into their best since Dwyane Wade and company made the Final Four in 2003. The non-conference schedule, while pretty light, caused the Golden Eagles problems. Their opening game against Ohio State at the Carrier Classic was cancelled because of condensation on the court, and that robbed Marquette of what would have been a great early tuneup.

As a result, Marquette struggled early on, barely beating Southeast Louisiana at home and falling to Butler in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Rotnei Clarke’s circus shot. The real problems started for Marquette when Florida laid the smackdown and crushed the Golden Eagles 82-49 in Gainesville. Marquette bounced back to beat Wisconsin the next week, but then hit a snag against Green Bay falling by two in a game where the team seemingly couldn’t make a jump shot. That inability to shoot would play a major role later on when it matter most.

Marquette opened conference play with flourish, beating Connecticut after Junior Cadougan hit a 35-foot runner to force overtime. The Golden Eagles got to 4-0 in conference before losing a heartbreaker in overtime at Cincinnati. They won two more before eventual national champion Louisville embarrassed them at the Yum! Center to drop their record to 6-2. Marquette defended home court for the rest of the season, but dropped two additional road games to Georgetown and Villanova.

Heading into the final two weeks of the season, the team knew they had to win out to sneak out with a share of the Big East title. Impressive home victories over Syracuse and Notre Dame, followed by a narrow win at Rutgers set the Golden Eagles up with a chance to clinch a share of the crown with a win in the Garden against St. John’s. The game took overtime, but a layup from Vander Blue as time expired clinched victory and the title for MU.

Madison Square Garden was the site of yet another Big East Conference Tournament disappoint a week later, as Notre Dame bounced them from the quarterfinals with an eight-point win. Somehow, Marquette managed to nab a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament the next week and drew No. 14 seed Davidson in the first (OK, second) round.

In that game, Marquette erased a seven-point deficit with just a minute remaining and won when Blue made a layup with only a few seconds to go. In the third round, Marquette outdueled an extremely game Butler team to end Brad Stevens’ NCAA magic. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Golden Eagles were heavy underdogs to an experienced Miami squad, but they played their best game of the season and smacked the Hurricanes to make their first Elite Eight appearance since 2003.

Marquette faced familiar rival Syracuse in the quarterfinals, and an inability to shoot the three-ball cost them dearly. The Boeheim 2-3 zone suffocated Marquette’s offense, and the Orange prevailed 55-39 in one of the ugliest games of the tournament. Still, it was Buzz Williams’ deepest ever run in his time in Milwaukee, and it upped the expectations for 2013-14.

2013-14 Outlook:

With the Big East morphing into a much more logical, 10-team basketball-centered league this season, athletic-overachievers Marquette will play the role of frontrunner for the first time since the heyday of Conference USA. At Big East media day in New York, the coaches picked Marquette first in the conference over other likely contenders Georgetown and newcomers Creighton.

Much of that respect is a testament to Williams, who excels at squeezing every last drop of talent out of roster often made up of misfits. Take Gardner for example. The 6-foot-8, 290 pound Suffolk, Va. native weighed around 350 pounds in high school, but Williams took a chance on him. That risk has paid off, as Gardner is one of the most versatile scorers in the conference. His athleticism for his weight baffles even the savviest of basketball enthusiasts, and he has one of the smoothest jumpshots on the team, regardless of his role as a low post scorer. The Big East coaches honored Gardner with a preseason first team all-Big East selection this season.

Joining Gardner in the front court is arguably Marquette’s best all-around player, senior forward Jamil Wilson. The Racine, Wis. native played his first year of college ball at Oregon before transferring back home after Ernie Kent was fired. Wilson plays the small-ball four spot for the Golden Eagles, and has the ability to attack off the dribble, knock down the fifteen-foot jumpshot with regularity, and defend multiple positions. At 6-foot-7, his biggest asset is his length.

Rounding out one of the most experience frontcourts in college basketball is sixth-year senior Chris Otule. At 6-foot-11, Otule contributes most at the defensive end. His shot-altering ability makes Marquette’s opponents think twice before attacking the paint. He also developed an effective hook shot during his time rehabbing an ACL tear suffered during the 2011-12 season. He offers a perfect compliment to the offensive-minded Gardner in the low post for Marquette. Williams usually subs the two out for each other, but last season, he successfully used them together a few times.

Sophomore forward Steve Taylor Jr. is expected to factor into the front court as well, but might begin the year limited by offseason knee surgery. Junior forward Juan Anderson will see minutes at the three and four spots, but needs to develop more toughness around the basket to play double-digit minute on a regular basis. Junior college transfer Jameel McKay was supposed to help up front as well, but he announced his departure from the program just two weeks ago.

The backcourt will give Williams significantly more headaches than the front court. Marquette lost all three backcourt starters from last season, and will suffer initially from Blue’s questionable decision to leave early for the NBA. Blue went undrafted and was released last week by the 76ers.

Junior guard Derrick Wilson will take the reins at the point for Marquette following Cadougan’s graduation. An Anchorage, Alaska native, Wilson played the role of defensive stopper the last two years. He also provided a far-less turnover prone alternative when Cadougan struggled to distribute effectively. Last season, Wilson played in all 35 games and averaged 13.1 mpg. He turned the ball over just 19 times. Wilson, at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, will rely on bulldog style to make things happen at both ends for Marquette.

Marquette also returns mercurial scorer Todd Mayo to their inexperience backcourt. Mayo, a junior guard and younger brother of NBA star O.J., missed the first half of 2012-13 due to academic ineligibility. When he returned, he showed flashes of scoring ability, but failed to garner consistency to satisfy the Marquette fanbase. He is easily Marquette’s least popular player, and faces the most pressure of any player on the roster going into this season.

More than any year previous in the Williams era, Marquette will count on freshmen to carry some of the load in the backcourt. The most likely of the four guards to contribute in his first year is Memphis native JaJuan Johnson. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard impressed Williams the most of any player in preseason boot camp, and has scoring ability and length to make him a special player for years to come. Point guards Duane Wilson and John Dawson also figure to play some role as Derrick Wilson’s backups, although neither appear ready to take a major role just yet. Duane Wilson will miss at least the first few weeks of the season with a leg injury, and Dawson is a project type player who likely won’t play a big part for the Golden Eagles for a few seasons. Milwaukee native and tank of a human being Deonte Burton (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) showed off a flair for the dramatic when he threw down between his legs at Marquette Madness, but will need to develop his game before playing a major role as a switchable guard/forward that Williams love to deploy.

Overall, Marquette is a frontcourt heavy team that will play slower than in years past and look to wear down their opponents physically. Much will depend on Jamil Wilson’s ability to score from all areas on the court and Gardner’s stamina and scoring touch down low. If one or more of Marquette’s freshmen can step up in a big way, this could be a very dangerous team in March and even April.

Prediction:

With Georgetown probably taking a step back with the loss of Otto Porter, Marquette is the prohibitive favorite to take the Big East. A grueling non-conference schedule will prepare the team for the softest Big East in recent memory. If players like Derrick Wilson, Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo can take big steps forward, the Golden Eagles could win the new conference going away. More likely, Marquette will defend home court, drop a few tough games on the road and grind its way to a 15-3 or 14-4 conference record and win outright by the skin of its teeth. A No. 3 or No. 4 seed is certainly in play for the Golden Eagles, and a run to at least the Sweet Sixteen appears likely for a Williams-led team that has been there the last three seasons. If Marquette can develop two or three consistent perimeter shooters and overcome its lack of backcourt experience, it could easily make the trip to Arlington, Texas in April. However, that may be a tall task for one of Williams’ weaker teams, and another Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight finish feels more realistic for the Golden Eagles.

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