Undersized and underappreciated, Hayward thrives as MU's unsung hero

His fastball zipped in at 70 mph, a decent piece of heat for a high school sophomore.

Baseball, Lazar Hayward figured, was his ticket. He had been playing since T-ball and made his high school varsity team as a freshman.

And then in one freakish summer Hayward grew, stretching like some character straight out of a Disney movie. He grew six inches between the end of his sophomore year and the start of his junior year, sprouting out of his clothes and into a new sport.

The same kid who had logged time on the JV basketball team for two seasons suddenly was a varsity player -- and a year later, a bona fide star.

If only Hayward could grow into his position now.

At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, Hayward is a perfectly sized forward for the college game, a guy who can score inside but is equally threatening on the wing.

Instead, thanks to a guard-heavy roster, the Marquette junior, who shot 42 percent from the arc as a high school senior, is often parked on the blocks, patrolling the same piece of real estate as Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet (7-3, 263 pounds), Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair (6-7, 265), Notre Dame's Luke Harangody (6-8, 251) and Georgetown's Greg Monroe (6-10, 240).

"It is wrong," Marquette coach Buzz Williams conceded. "He is playing out of position. It isn't supposed to work like this, but it's what we have and it's what we're going to use. We don't have a choice."

The Golden Eagles haven't exactly suffered from their unorthodox style. They are ranked 12th nationally, are 20-3 overall and until an upset at South Florida on Friday night, were riding atop the Big East standings.

Hayward isn't exactly drowning, either. He is third on the team in scoring, averaging a career-best 15.7 points per game as the lone non-guard among Marquette's top five scorers. He also leads his team in rebounding, with 8.7 boards a game, good enough for seventh-best in the Big East.

Yet there are always two caveats when the conversation turns to Marquette. For starters, the Golden Eagles, who visit No. 14 Villanova on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7:30 ET), haven't played the meat of the Big East schedule -- no UConn, no Louisville, no Pittsburgh, no Syracuse, and Georgetown and Villanova only once -- and so critics question the legitimacy of that high ranking and gaudy record.

And then there is the "but" that wiggles its way into every sentence. The guards are good, BUT Marquette doesn't have a big man. The Golden Eagles are 9-1 in the Big East, BUT they can't sustain it without a starter over 6-foot-6 on the roster. This team is fun to watch, BUT come tourney time it will get bounced by a team with a dominant post player.

Hayward is the "but," seen as the weak link in the solid guard chain of Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James.

"I think you definitely need a post presence," Hayward agreed. "But I also think in the Big East, no matter what position they are, if you put your toughest five guys on the court you're going to win."

That Hayward is the tough guy in the middle is a belly laugher to his father.

"There are games I look out there and he's playing the 5," Lazar Hayward Sr. said with a big laugh. "The 5! His freshman year, he was playing the 5 against Michigan State at the NCAA tournament and Michigan State was huge."

There are parents who would whine, if not downright demand, that their son play his rightful position. There are players who would make life miserable for coach and teammates, more concerned with their own personal stock than their team's success.

Then there are the Haywards. Hayward Sr. praises his son for being the consummate team player, and Hayward Jr. is a kid who joined the rowing team in high school because his coach convinced him it would be good for upper body strength. In Buffalo, N.Y.

He's the very definition of agreeable.

In a five-minute monologue extolling the virtues of Hayward as person and player and Hayward Sr. as person and father, Williams returned to one word over and over again: pure.

"I don't know with my limited vocabulary if I can do it justice and I really mean that," Williams said. "Lazar is as pure a human being as I have ever coached. He thinks the best of people and does exactly what you tell him to do, how you tell him to do it and when you tell him to do it. And when you ask if he understands, he says, 'Yes, sir.' That's because of his father. His dad is the best parent I've ever seen in respect to how he's raised and supported his son. They're just pure. I don't know another word to use."

Hayward Sr. raised his namesake, as well as a younger son, Avery, on his own in Buffalo. Their mother, a fashion model, was in and out of their lives, and so the three men made do. A nearby grandmother provided most of the meals and the boys learned early how to do their own laundry.

Hayward Sr., who rarely misses a Marquette game and will drive as many as nine hours to see his son play, figured he was raising a baseball player until that crazy summer when his son started to grow and his wallet started to shrink. Until then Hayward played basketball for fun, content to be on the high school JV team and on the playgrounds with his buddies. He played AAU ball, but was in it for the trips, not the exposure.

His body had other ideas.

"I've often thought about it: Did I just wake up one day and I had grown?" Hayward said. "All I remember is I was kind of goofy because it all came at me so fast. I was pretty awkward."

The overgrown puppy eventually grew into his limbs, blossoming into an 18.8-point, 7.9-rebound player as a senior. He spent a prep school year at Notre Dame in Fitchburg, Mass., averaging 27 points there and becoming a top-100 recruit. The one-time baseball prodigy headed to Marquette on a basketball scholarship.

His surprise dream nearly went poof when the NCAA reviewed a clearinghouse issue, waiting until Oct. 27 to deem him eligible. Hayward vividly remembers the day he got the OK, with players and coaches gathering around him in the locker room as then-head coach Tom Crean delivered the news.

"He was like, 'Lazar, we just got off the phone with the NCAA and we're really sorry but as of today, you're eligible," Hayward said. "The whole team rushed me and we fell on the floor."

The twist, of course, is that Hayward could play … just not the position he was built for. Depending on your point of view, Hayward was blessed or cursed to arrive on campus right behind a trio of guards that left little room on the perimeter for him.

Hayward said the adjustment at first was difficult. He had to put on weight to survive in the blocks, but he didn't want to sacrifice his quickness. Eventually he found the proper balance, calling on the footwork he used as a part-time shortstop to see him through.

Now while critics are busy pointing out what Hayward lacks, his coach reminds people of what he brings. Hayward may not park on the perimeter, but he is still capable of working from there -- he's 41-of-91 from the 3-point arc this year -- and forces big men out of their defensive comfort zones.

"Dominic and Wesley and Jerel are very deserving of the credit and mention they're getting, and there's no doubt Lazar is better because of those three guards," Williams said. "But I like to flip that around because the fact is, those three guards are also better because of Lazar."

There are moments, Hayward admits, he daydreams about running around like a regular forward, about swishing 3s from the perimeter.

And then he wakes up to his reality, where Blair stands like a lineman and Thabeet like a tower, altering shots simply by lurking in the key.

"You see guys like that, especially Thabeet, and they alter so many shots because they're in guys' heads," Hayward said. "You can't go into a game like that. He's there so you have to go at him. I mean, what else can you do?"

Not much, save for scheduling another growth spurt between now and March.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.