The Golden Eagles were the cardiac kids a year ago having an astonishing 17 games decided by five points or fewer. They were undersized and often times outmatched, but played as hard as any team in college basketball on a nightly basis, and as a result, exceeded every outside expectation.
Three starters have graduated including the invaluable, versatile, ultimate team player Lazar Hayward. Marquette does add five talented newcomers and returns two players from injury which should give the team a depth that they have sorely lacked the past couple of seasons.
Jimmy Butler emerged as Hayward's sidekick last season and now becomes the team leader. Like Lazar, Butler has the versatility to defend several positions on the floor. Offensively, he can take you off the bounce, has a tremendous knack for crashing the glass, and gets to the charity stripe at an incredibly high rate as he was 18th in the country in free throws attempted in 2009-10.
While Butler becomes the old veteran, he may not need to be the team's go-to scorer. Darius Johnson-Odom proved to be a dynamic weapon on the wing in his first season at Marquette. Since he will handle the ball a fair amount of the time, Johnson-Odom will have the ability to create not only for himself but for his teammates as well. A key for Johnson-Odom is to get him going from the opening tip. It seems like when he hits his first shot, the confidence only builds.
Johnson-Odom will likely be joined in the starting backcourt by Junior Cadougan who will take over at the point for Maurice Acker and David Cubillan. Cadougan missed the first 18 games of his freshman season due to a ruptured Achilles' tendon. He came back down the stretch, but was too far behind to make a significant impact. The 6-1 Toronto native is more of a play-maker than scorer, and can hopefully replace Acker and Cubillan's relentless on-the-ball defending.
Junior Dwight Buycks and highly touted freshman Vander Blue will likely begin the season coming off the bench, but could easily find themselves in the starting lineup. Buycks began last season as a valuable role player who could knock down open jump shots, but struggled late in the year as he battled through injury. Blue brings even more versatility to Marquette's lineup as he can play the one, two or three. The Madison native experienced an invaluable opportunity this summer playing for the U.S. U-18 team that won gold at the World Championships. There, he made a commitment to the defensive end which will only benefit him in finding the floor as a true freshman.
While Marquette will not be near as small as they were last season, there are still some questions in the frontcourt. Six-foot-11 Chris Otule suffered a broken foot last season after only playing in the first three games of the season. Buzz Williams had been very impressed with how Otule was developing and the injury was a huge loss. If he can stay healthy and provide some size and physicality inside, it will finally give the Golden Eagles a true center who can bang with the big bodies.
Jae Crowder is a Hayward-type player who was the JUCO Player of the Year after leading his team to the National Championship. He fits Buzz's recruiting M.O. in that he is a versatile forward who can play multiple positions. Crowder should immediately step into the starting lineup and could be the x-factor to Marquette's success.
The team comedian, high-flying Joe Fulce will provide some depth up front. Fulce can play either forward spot and was also forced to play some five last season. He brings good energy off the bench and will be counted on fairly heavily unless Erik Williams makes serious strides after a freshman season in which he seemed lost on the floor more times than not. If 6-8, 290-pound freshman Davante Gardner (or De-de as Buzz calls him) proves ready to play right away, he can also add a physicality down low that the team lacked last season.
Freshmen Jamail Jones and Reggie Smith will probably be the odd men out of the rotation. Both players are blessed with ridiculous athleticism but are not ready to steal minutes from Cadougan, Johnson-Odom, Buycks, or Blue in the backcourt, but are definitely exciting pieces to the future.
One thing is for sure; Buzz will have this team ready to play every night. They will play their hearts out on defense and value every single offensive possession. They will play within themselves and thrive in their unselfishness and team-first mentailty. And at the end of every forty minutes, you will undoubtedly say to yourself, "Those kids gave it everything they had."
On paper, this team is deeper, bigger and more versatile than the 2009-10 Golden Eagles. Whether or not that is enough to get them past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament (something they have not done since their magical run to the Final Four in 2003) will be determined as the season progresses.
Player to Watch: Darius Johnson-Odom
Darius Johnson-Odom proved he can light up the scoreboard last season, but also had a tendency to disappear on occasion. Marquette will need him to be a consistent offensive threat which he is more than capable of doing. The smooth stroking lefty is a great shooter (47% from three last season), can create his own shot, and also get to the basket. I think he is due for a true breakout season and will be one of the top scorers in the Big East. Expect to see him play a little more point than he did last season.