It’s obvious that Marquette came into the season with high expectations. Coming off an Elite Eight finish in the NCAA tournament, athletic director Larry Williams acknowledged that Buzz Williams “wasn’t afraid to play anyone,” which resulted in scheduling an incredibly difficult (but promising) non-conference slate. After all, the Big East had lost a handful of top-25 caliber teams, and Marquette needed to even out the playing field to boost their next tourney resume.
Unfortunately, this 10-game span of multiple top-25 teams proved to be a collective wake-up call for the players, coach and organization altogether. Kicking off with a 52-35 nightmare at home against Ohio State, the Golden Eagles went on to lose all five of their pre-determined “test games” by an average deficit of 8.
“I think it’s the most difficult schedule we’ve ever played,” Williams said before the loss at Wisconsin. “It’s also the worst record we’ve ever had through eight games since we’ve been here.”
A couple expected wins and a New Mexico loss later, the Golden Eagles ended the nightmarish stretch at 8-5. And while a positive record doesn’t necessarily make you cringe, it certainly doesn’t excite you either when you see who the wins were over. With George Washington, New Hampshire and Southern as Marquette’s most quality wins as of now, tourney hopes seem slim. But going past concrete wins and losses, what else have we learned about this team through the non-conference slate that may help or hurt us going into March? Let’s evaluate.
What We’ve Learned About Marquette So Far
1. Marquette’s not as good as we thought they were
Before the start of the season, we picked Marquette to finish 12-2 through the non-conference schedule, chalking up the only losses to Ohio State and Arizona State. Whoops. However, we’re definitely not the only ones who seemed to have overestimated this team’s abilities – aside from all the positive preseason analysis from sports writers nationwide, this team was ranked 17th to begin the season and was picked to finish 1st in the new Big East. Not that the second is impossible, but it’s looking less and less likely with every loss.
2. Jajuan Johnson and Deonte Burton can contribute as freshmen
- Sure, we knew they’d both be good at some point in their Marquette careers, but the impact these two have already made holds promise for increased contribution in this season alone. Their “flashes” of talent have come sporadically, and mostly in blowout games (Samford, Ball State, IUPUI, Cal State Fullerton, etc), but both have shown the ability to contribute in crucial games – Johnson in the Arizona State game (9 pts, 4-8 FG, 1-3 3PT, 3 assists, 3 reb, 1 steal in 25 mins), and #Bane in the San Diego State game (15 pts, 6-8 FG, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 1 reb in 16 mins). What’s also interesting is that their stats have a clear split when associated with playing time:
16+ minutes: 6 games, 11.6 PPG (70 points), 53% FG (28-53)
Less than 16 mins: 7 games, 2.1 PPG (15 points), 31% FG (5-16)
16+ minutes: 6 games, 12.5 PPG (75 points), 60% FG (28-47)
Less than 16 mins: 6 games, zero points (0-10 FG) in 62 minutes total
Clearly, they’ve shone offensively when given the opportunity to do so. Now, this isn’t a cry to play them more, because not only do these stats not account for defense, but we have just as viable players ahead of them with more experience. As the topic line hints, this is only a testament to their potential for later this season and years to come – and not to mention a promising one. For a more visual experience on how good Burton specifically is going to be, look below.
..By the way, that was the #1 play on Fox Sports 1 that night and the #6 play on SportsCenter the next day. Some claim it was #2 on SC at one point, but I unfortunately never got to witness it that high. I wouldn’t doubt it was, however. And if you do, you might want to hit the replay button.
3. Point guard will be a major issue for the rest of the season
- With freshman Duane Wilson electing to redshirt this season, Marquette will be stuck with Derrick Wilson and John Dawson running the point for the rest of the year. Now, Jamil and Todd have and will continue to bring the ball up at times, but the fact that we look towards other positions for ball-handlers just shows how atrocious this crop of point guards is. Now, Derrick’s scoring average of 5.2 PPG may be better than what we expected, but having percentages of 39% FG, 11% 3PT FG and 56% FT would make any coach look frantically for other options. Unfortunately for Marquette, there aren’t many other options.
4. Outside shooting is still a problem, but it’s not as bad as you think
- 31% from beyond the arc doesn’t seem different from last year’s 29%, but the difference between this season and the last is both the amount and quality of outside shooters rather than the team’s collective percentage. Last year, the options were Blue (30%), Jamil (36%), Mayo (28%) and Lockett (33%) – which really isn’t the best group of outside shooters, considering three are below last year’s nationwide average of 33.8%. This year, the options are Thomas (40%), Jamil (30%), Mayo (36%), JJJ (35%) and Anderson (26%), which is a lot better compared to the last group, despite the two teams’ similar percentages. Expect this year’s team percentage to go up if Jamil gets out of his 3-point shooting funk.
5. Jake Thomas is an important part of this year’s offense
- Despite the slow start to the season (and lack of playing time last year), Thomas has picked it up as of late and is now shooting 40% from the three on the year, along with averaging 7.0 PPG and 25 minutes per game. His defense, streakiness and lack of versatility make it debatable whether or not he generally helps the team, but this topic is more about usage – and Thomas having the 4th-most field goal attempts on the team makes it clear that Buzz both values and uses his outside shooting. While I agree that there are times where he needs to be sat for other options (can’t emphasize this enough), this team would undoubtedly be struggling without his ability to come in and spread the floor. And hey, he’s been improving all season – in his last four games alone, he’s shooting a blistering 53% from three (8-15), including a couple swishes from the parking lot against New Mexico.
6. Leadership is currently missing
- Leadership in basketball is best shown when one or more players carry a team through tough games with a competitive (but calming) presence that sets up both themselves and their team for success. This has been almost nonexistent this season. To be an on-court leader, you must possess a combination of skill, basketball IQ and instinct that both leads and defines your team during tough games. For example: last year, a few on-court leaders were Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett. This team’s leaders and identity throughout the season have been, again, confusing and inconsistent – and this ugly flaw has revealed itself at the end of every important game we’ve been in. Someone needs to step up and consistently carry this team in the clutch – and if it doesn’t happen sooner or later, this team will continue to self-destruct when the clock winds down.
Conference play starts tonight against Creighton at 9:00 pm CT on Fox Sports 1. Many questions remain to unanswered – for example, has this team underachieved, or were just they overrated in the preseason? True answers will only be found out with time. As for now, let’s look towards the second half of the season with hope that this team can learn from this slide and use this experience to their advantage.
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