2006-2007 BIG EAST PREVIEW: 4) MARQUETTE
October 28, 2008
Last season, the first in the Big East for the Golden Eagles, Tom Crean and his Marquette program gave notice to the rest of the Big East right away that they were a program to be reckoned with! In their first Big East Conference game, Marquette stunned conference favorite Connecticut in the Breadley Center 94-79 behind the 41-pt, 16-rebound performance of Steve Novak. From then on, Marquette was a Big East challenger, not just in their mind, but in the mind of every other Big East team as well.
Marquette went on and completed a successful run in their inaugural Big East campaign, finishing 10-6 in the conference and returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Dwayne Wade led Marquette to the Final Four. Although Steve Novak is no longer a Golden Eagle, there is plenty of reason to believe, once again, that Marquette will be a Big East challenger once again this season.
College basketball has become more and more of a guard's game and nobody in the conference has a better trio than the Marquette sophomores of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Mathews. James was the conference's Freshman of the Year last season and returns as a unanimous 1st-team preseason all-conference selection by the Big East coaches and looks to build off of his freshmen campaign.
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James is built like a defensive pack, short and powerful, and is one the the most athletic players in college basketball and combines his football strength with amazing quickness. With Novak being a constant threat from the perimeter, James would pick apart defenses with his dribble penetration as there were so few that could stay in front of him man to man. James finished the season averaged 15 PPG, 5 assists and 4.5 rebounds a contest. He does need to improve his shooting touch as teams are likely to make him shoot more from the perimeter (43% overall and 30% from 3-pt range last year), but with Marquette's commitment to turning up the tempo even more this year, expect James to spend a lot of time on the go in transition and racing to the hoop. He is a player with no fear heading to the basket and that football mentality often sends him crashing to the floor, leaving coach Crean holding his breath that James will pop back up.
As mentioned earlier, James is not alone on the perimeter as he has a pair of classmates as talented running mates. Jerel McNeal was also a 1st team all-freshmen performer last season, averaging 11 PPG, 4.5 rebounds and 3 assists. Not too many guards are going to find ways to score on McNeal, who will emerge as one of the best defenders in the conference. McNeal led Marquette with 64 steals last year, which is a good thing, because he also led Marquette with 117 turnovers. McNeal is another player that likes to get to the basketb, going right mostly, but he will need to show improvement from the perimeter, or at least from mid-range, this season to keep defenses honest (shot just 40% in Big East games and 28% from 3-pt range on the year). Mathews had some of his development slowed last year by a foot injury that wiped out most of his conference season. He is a smooth wing-guard that has excellent size (6'5) and vesatility to the backcourt (likely the back-up PG as well). This could be a breakout season for Mathews who is concentrating on basketball for the first time (multi-sport star in high school) and should take his game to another level.
After the three-guard power of Marquette, things do get a little tricky when forecasting their success. The main question that needs to be answered is who replaces the scoring and perimeter shooting that Steve Novak brought to the Golden Eagles. As much of a key as the three freshmen guards were in Marquette's surprising season, Novak's emergence as a go-to scorer and clutch performer, from being predominately a 3-pt threat only, played a HIGE role in their success and allowed more room for the guards to do their thing. With Novak in the game, teams were afraid to zone the Golden Eagles because once he got going it was unlikely to stop. Also moving on was their 2nd best perimeter threat, Joe Chapman, a valuable senior whose experience seemd to help him come up strong at key times. The early plan at the 4-position and as designated 3-pt threat is freshman Lazar Hayward and/or junior Dan Fitzgerald.
After finishing his career at Traditional HS in Buffalo (NY), Hayward moved on to the prep school ranks at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg (MA). For two seasons, Hayward improved his all-around game and became a more confident and stronger player and saw his recruiting stock explode (when arriving at ND Prep, he was not considered a Division 1-A player). The 6'6 freshman is not only a shooter anymoe, however, the 3-pt shot is still his specialty and it is something the Golden Eagles will need to keep defenses honest. However, a qualifying issue with the NCAA Clearninghouse has not allowed Hayward to be cleared for participation with Marquette this season. Hayward was recently cleared to practice with his team, but word has not come back if he will be able to play this season. It is a situation we will continue to monitor and will impact Marquette this season.
Fitzgerald came to Marquette after spending a season at Tulane. After sitting out a season, the 6'9 junior averaged 5 PPG last season backing up nearly every position on the floor, even point guard. Fitzgerald looks a lot like Novak of a couple years ago and will be called upon to provide scoring and rebounding out of a forward position this season. There will be a lot of pressure on the boards and defensively on Fitzgerald this season, he could be a pivotal player for the Golden Eagles in terms of their success overall.
If you want a candidate for the conference's post-season award for Most Improved Player, I would keep an eye on junior center Ousmane Barro, a 6'10 235 lb native of Senegal. Barro still needs to adapt to the physical style of the Big East, but he definitely has the physical tools to play at this level. He showed improvement as last year went along and they will need him to provide a force in the middle with their small line-up. Oft-injured 7'0 Mike Kinsella will also provide depth with Barro up front. Not much of an offensive threat, although he has a nice touch faceing up the basket, Kinsella will likely be called on to lean on some of the talented big men in the conference and work them hard. At the 4-spot, if Marquette is forced to go a little bigger, senior Jamil Lott is a candidate to get some minutes. As a JUCO transfer, he took some time to adapt to the division 1-A game and was also set-back by injuries. Sophomore Dwight Burke did not see much time last year, but there is an opportunity for him to earn time along the frontline this year as well.
Besides Hayward, Marquette has a pair of other newcomers hoping to suit up this season. JUCO transfer Lawrence Blackledge is a redshirt candidate, depending on the decision from the NCAA on Hayward's eligiblity. Blackledge is a long and VERY lean (6'8, 180 lbs) forward that would fit into their uptempo style, but lacks weight to be effective in the Big East for significant stretches. New Jersey native David Cubillan is a combo-guard that will provide depth for the talented Marquette guard trio. Cubillan is a capable ball-handler and shooter and provides good insurance at depth for Tom Crean.
With returning star-power in Dominic James and the surprising success of last season, Marquette gets a tough Big East slate, especially with road games against Connecticut, DePaul, Georgetown, Louisville and Pittsburgh. The Golden Eagles have Providence, Pitt and Louisville as their home and home's. The miss out this year in playing an improving St. John's and a rebuilding Cincinnati, a former C-USA partner. This is a tough road slate in the conference, but very atypical of the other challengers for the conference top spot.
Overall, the Marquette program could not be healthier. With tremendous fan support, even while playing their games off campus at the professional arena the Bradley Center, Marquette basketball carries big clout in the professional sports town of Milwaukee. Tom Crean was given a 10-yr contract extension recently and with a conference Player of the Year candidate in Dominic James leading the charge, expect more of the same this season and an even more exciting style of play. In the Big East, they will run into some trouble against teams that slow them down and force them to execute in a halfcourt environment, espcially if they contain the dribble penetration of the guards, however, that is going to be much easier said than done!
Predicted Big East record: 11-5