Marquette upbeat despite turbulent offseason

October, 15, 2009
Georgetown expects to challenge for the Big East title.

And it's obvious with the turnover of rosters that Louisville and Pitt should drop out of the top two slots from last season to make room for a contender that finished in the bottom six.

Connecticut, which was tied with Pitt, a game behind Louisville, will slide down a peg, too, albeit maybe just out of the title chase.

Upstart teams like Cincinnati, Seton Hall and St. John's all say they're going to make runs at NCAA berths. If that's the case, a team from the top eight of the Big East has to drop to the bottom seven, right?

Picking Providence to drop makes sense because it lost five key players off last season's team. The Friars didn't make the NCAA tournament but did win 10 league games. Second-year coach Keno Davis has to put his own imprint on the roster this season.

But that's still not enough if those other teams are going to climb higher in the Big East. Another team has to drop.

The consensus among the rest of the league is that team probably will be Marquette, which lost a trio of guards (Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James), the driving force in Tom Crean's and Buzz Williams' success on the court the past three seasons.

"Everyone is making that push, and in order for someone to go up, someone else has to go down,'' second-year Golden Eagles coach Williams said late Wednesday as he finished an exhausting day that started with a 5 a.m. boot camp wakeup call with his team. Marquette is preparing for Friday's first official day of practice. "If Providence and Marquette are those teams, then maybe that's what it will be.''

With Cincinnati's addition of highly touted talent Lance Stephenson, the healthy return of Anthony Mason Jr. for a veteran St. John's team, and the impact of transfers Herb Pope and Keon Lawrence for surging Seton Hall, Williams isn't dismissing the expected turnarounds.

He's not going to argue any of those points.

But it would be hard to push the Marquette staff into thinking it isn't finishing somewhere in the top eight with the current roster, despite a turbulent offseason.

Marquette's staff exhibits pride, albeit somewhat privately, and its members believe there's no reason the Golden Eagles should be seen as any less deserving of consideration among possible postseason teams than Pitt, which lost four of five starters and two key players for this season (Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown, who currently are shelved with a broken foot and a fall academic suspension, respectively).

The Pitt comeback is hard to debate, considering the Panthers do have an immense talent in 6-foot-9, 235-pound big man Dante Taylor to replace DeJuan Blair, a gold-medal-winning (Under-19 U.S. team) point guard in Ashton Gibbs and a coach in Jamie Dixon who has a stellar 163-45 record in his first six seasons as a head coach. With Dixon's track record, the expectation is he won't slide out of a top-eight finish.

The Golden Eagles' case would be stronger had freshman point Junior Cadougan not ruptured his right Achilles tendon, which will keep him sidelined for the season. Their case to stay relevant this season would have been nearly impossible had senior guard Maurice Acker not flip-flopped and returned to the team after deciding earlier in the summer to focus on his academics. Acker's minutes jumped from three a game to more than 27 after Dominic James went out with a foot injury in the final six games of the 2008-09 regular season.

Williams said it was déjà vu that Acker was in the same position from last winter to now, standing idle until an injury opened up an opportunity for him.

The other point Marquette was counting on was sophomore Darius Johnson-Odom, who injured his left foot in a workout last month. The hope is Johnson-Odom can come back next week.

The off-court news got worse last month when 2010-11 committed recruit Monterale Clark was arrested and charged in an alleged sexual assault at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas. The 6-foot-10 Clark was a highly touted junior college player who was being heavily pursued by schools in the Big 12 and SEC. Clark hadn't signed a national letter of intent yet (until the November signing period), so the Golden Eagles can't comment on him. However, privately they say that regardless of what happens with the case, Clark will never play for them.

The eligibility of Youssoupha Mbao, a 7-foot-2 freshman expected to contribute, is not settled, and junior forward Joe Fulce is still recovering from surgery on his right knee.

Despite all the body blows that seem to be coming, the Golden Eagles don't seem to be wilting. There are high expectations for senior Lazar Hayward, who averaged 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds a game last season, and won a bronze medal for the U.S. at the World University Games. And the returns of Acker and sixth man Jimmy Butler, who averaged 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds last season on the wing, certainly help.

"Lazar will be one of the better players in the league,'' Marquette assistant coach Tony Benford said. "Acker, Hayward and Butler all averaged 25 minutes or more toward the end of last season when James went down, and we have experience at the right spots -- point guard and the 4 man. Everybody is going to pick us [as the team that drops]. We'll see.''

While Johnson-Odom is expected back, not having Cadougan is a blow. The expectation that senior point David Cubillan will cushion some of it means the Golden Eagles will have two seniors sharing the point, even though neither was projected to be the main distributor at the end of last season.

If junior college stud Dwight Buycks can make an impact on the perimeter, freshman wing Jeronne Maymon can produce, and there is helpful depth behind Hayward with Fulce, sophomore center Chris Otule, freshman Erik Williams and Mbao (assuming his eligibility is resolved and he doesn't miss games), there will be quality depth, as Benford professes.

Benford isn't shying away from the Golden Eagles' needing Otule to score on the block, Maymon to be the strong power body inside or Mbao to be the skilled big man who can run the floor and defend. "Everybody thinks it's going to be us, the team that slides,'' Benford said. "But we'll defend. And you know a Buzz team is going to play hard.''

Getting an early read on this squad could come in late November at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. Marquette opens with Xavier and then plays either Creighton or Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend.

Playing rebuilding NC State and at Wisconsin in December also will tell a tale about where this team is headed before it opens the Big East with easily the hardest first four games of any team in the league. Marquette faces three favorites who might win the league: at West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown and at Villanova. That slate alone could push Marquette to the cellar. Whether it stays there will be determined by how much the newcomers have matured by January.

Williams was facing a daunting task of filling the roster with high-profile recruits after the expected departures of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and James.

He did that.

He couldn't control the injury to Cadougan, and the 2010 recruiting took a major hit with the Clark situation. Getting Jamail Jones (the No. 13 small forward in the ESPNU Top 100) out of Montverde Academy in Decatur, Ga., helps.

But the long-term success of this program might be determined by how Williams handles this season now that Cadougan is gone and the focus will be on whether or not the Golden Eagles fall in the league.

Since the expectation is that they will drop, finishing in the top 10 in the Big East will be seen as a major accomplishment that proves the Golden Eagles have sustaining power even in a transition year.

• Equal time for the rest of the America East is due after all the negative words focused on Binghamton's issues. Albany returns two all-conference players, Tim Ambrose (14.3 ppg) and Virginia transfer Will Harris (12.9 ppg), to a team that was fourth nationally in rebound margin. Boston University first-year coach Pat Chambers is loaded with 91.5 percent of the scoring back from last season, including John Holland (18.1), Corey Lowe (17.2) and league rookie of the year Jake O'Brien (12.5). New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion made the America East semifinals last season for the second time since 1995, and Alvin Abreu (12.8 ppg), Tyrone Conley (8.9 ppg) will ease replacing two-time all-conference player Tyrece Gibbs. With 16 wins last season, Stony Brook's total was its most in Division I, and it should be a factor again with Muhammad El-Amin (15.7 ppg) and all-rookie players Tommy Brenton (6.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Bryan Dougher (11.2 ppg). SBU held teams to only 60.9 points a game last season. Vermont returns the America East player and defensive player of the year, Marqus Blakely (16.1 ppg, 9 rebounds per game and 2.7 blocks per game), and Michigan State transfer Maurice Joseph (8.1). The Catamounts averaged a league-best 76.1 points a game. Hartford's Dan Leibovitz is hopeful he'll have an injury-free team this season. Leibovitz got his team motivated by proving he can stay in shape, too. He ran and finished the Hartford Marathon on Saturday -- his first.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?