Fly, Eagles, Fly, on the road to...Oh, sorry. When you live in Philadelphia, sometimes you pick up some bad habits. Anyway, what got me going on that tangent is tonight's Big East basketball menu. In case you hadn't heard, college basketball is back and the Big East has a full slate of games to start the year off right. One of the most intriguing of those contests is Marquette's season opener against the Belmont Bruins.
During the off-season, Marquette has received a heaping of praise for its young and talented squad, cobbled together by Coach K disciple Steve Wojciechowski. The praise has led to some higher expectations than the team shouldered last season, when it wrapped up the year at just 13-19 overall, marking its second straight season outside of the NCAA Tournament.
1. Frontcourt Combo
The main event tonight will be the unveiling of Henry Ellenson. He has yet to play a game at the NCAA level but was still named the best power forward in the conference by the extremely intelligent folks here at Big East Coast Bias. Ellenson, who joins his brother Wally on the squad, is a 6-foot-11 McDonald's All-American who was ranked the No. 5 recruit in the country by ESPN. His impressive scoring chops will make him a primary offensive option right away for the Golden Eagles, who ranked 238th in the country in offensive rating (100.0) last season.
Ellenson impressed in the Golden Eagles' exhibition against Valley City State, scoring 16 points, grabbing 17 rebounds and handing out five assists. Now he gets to show his stuff against a Division I opponent.
Ellenson will have some help on the inside in redshirt junior Luke Fischer. Also a 6-foot-11 specimen, Fischer was a solid scorer last season (11 PPG) and he may get a few more looks if teams decide to diverge on Ellenson. Fischer does need to be better on the boards after collecting only 4.8 rebounds per game last season, while posting a true rebounding percentage of just 9.8.
2. Sophomore Surge
With the departure of Matt Carlino (#CAR3NO) and Juan Anderson, there is space for Duane Wilson, JaJuan Johnson and Sandy Cohen to, pardon the pun, spread their wings even further this season. Wilson was the best of the trio of freshmen last season, ranking second on the team in scoring (11.9 PPG). He also knocked down 49 3-pointers, which is an area the Golden Eagles will need to improve on since Carlino knocked down 83 of the team's 207 triples a year ago.
Johnson isn't likely to be much of a help with his perimeter shooting, but he is a solid small forward that can score and fill in the gaps defensively. He averaged 7.3 points per game last season and will be on the court much more often in the coming year. He slotted into the starting lineup along with Ellenson, Fischer, Wilson and Cohen in the team's exhibition against Valley City State.
Cohen really showed up in that teaser, scoring 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting. The development of these three will go a long way in determining just how ready for prime time Marquette is.
3. No Pushover
While Villanova is "testing" itself against Fairleigh Dickinson, Seton Hall gives Dartmouth a shot and St. John's takes on Wagner, Marquette will be busy actually challenging itself on opening night. The Golden Eagles' opponent is Ohio Valley Conference power Belmont, a team that has won at least 20 games in nine of the last 10 seasons, with seven NCAA Tournament bids along the way.
The Bruins finished 22-11 last season behind the exploits of Craig Bradshaw (18.3 PPG), Evan Bradds (14.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG) and Taylor Barnette (10.6 PPG). The Bruins kill teams with ruthless offensive efficiency and deep shooting. They ranked 24th in the country in field goal percentage last season (.476), while making the third most 3-pointers of any program in the nation (329). They will give Marquette everything all it can handle.