Four games into Marquette's Big East schedule, the team is living up to their own standards. Many people picked the Golden Eagles to finish between six and eight in the conference. But much to first year coach Buzz Williams's delight, Marquette's three senior guards have shown the determination that they are ready to win.
Marquette has gotten off to a hot start in the Big East season, going 4-0 and winning by an average of 17 points per game. With home wins against top 25 opponents Villanova and West Virginia, they have proved that they can beat some of the league's best in 2009. For different reasons, Marquette has shown that they can compete with the beasts of the east.
With four seniors starting, Marquette has as much game experience as anyone in the Big East. Seniors include Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dwight Burke. Lazar Hayward is the lone junior in the starting lineup. James, McNeal and Matthews have started all four years for Marquette, and it shows.
When the three of them are on the court, good things happen. All of them average over 30 minutes per game. Hayward is a forward that can play on the perimeter and also drive to the basket. He was a full-time starter last year and is giving 29 minutes a game this year. The starters also account for 83 percent of the teams points this year.
Dominic James is making it known that he can be a true point guard rather than trying to be more of a scorer like past years. James has improved his turnover/assist ratio by almost one assist from last year. But he as also shown a great improvement on the defensive end. He has always been a good defender but this year he has been able to match up against some of the best guards in the conference.
Jerel McNeal has also shown a lot of improvement. Most commonly known for his defense, McNeal has become a much better shooter, particularly his three point shooting which is up to 44.9 percent from last years 30.4 percent.
He's already notched two Big East Player of the Week awards, which puts him at four in his career. He has also been named the top shooting guard on different occasions in rivals.com's Power Rankings.
Wesley Matthews has also been very successful this year. He is leading the team in scoring for the first time, and is among the top three in the country in getting to the free throw line and making it. Matthews is averaging almost 19 points per game, which is up nearly 8 points from last year. He looks bigger and more determined to drive to the basket this year.
After Tom Crean left Marquette to take over at Indiana, the university hired Buzz Williams as their head coach. Williams was an assistant coach under Crean in 2007-2008. In the '06-'07 season he coached New Orleans to a 14-17 record. Buzz has made it clear that he can recruit, but now he has to show that he can coach in the Big East.
Crean's departure came to a surprise to the entire Marquette Community and left most fans upset. But the players have backed Williams in every form. They believe in Buzz, and he believes in the team.
What Marquette lacks in size, they make up for in athleticism. During the off-season, many were worried about getting beat night in and night out in the paint. But as much as they have to worry about opposing centers, the opposing team has to worry about Marquette's athleticism.
Dominic James is one of the quickest players in the Big East, and Jerel McNeal can jump in an opponent's passing lane as well as anybody in the country. The trio of James, McNeal and Matthews makeup 65 percent of the team's steals.
Any one of those three also have the ability on offense to explode to the basket, and go on lengthy hot streaks that get Marquette back into games or help put the game away.
Marquette's key additions include junior college transfers Jimmy Butler and Joseph Fulce, plus 6'10" freshman Chris Otule. Butler seems to improve with every game. He doesn't put up the points of a star, but contributes solid minutes to give the starters a rest.
Fulce and Otule both missed most of the non-conference season due to injuries. But the little Otule has played, he's demonstrated that he might be a difference maker down the stretch.
With a 4-0 start to the Big East, Marquette needs to continue winning games, as their last five games include at Georgetown, vs. UConn, at Louisville, at Pitt, and vs. Syracuse.
The Big East may be the toughest conference, but experience and determination is the key factor for Marquette to finish first. It would be a surprise to fans, but to the team, it's nothing more than what they thought they could do.