Currently sitting atop the Big East standings at 7-0 and 18-2 overall, the Marquette Golden Eagles have been one of the most surprising teams in college basketball this season. Yes, Marquette has been ranked at times throughout the last four years in the top 20, and even top 15, but they have never taken that next step as an elite team. That was until this season.
Sitting atop the Big East, Marquette still has a very tough schedule ahead of them, and there are still a lot of question marks as to whether they can be put into the same sentence has UConn, North Carolina, Duke, or Louisville. Therefore, here are the five burning questions that will plague this Marquette team the rest of the season.
1. Which "Big" will step up?
So far, the biggest question that has plagued the Golden Eagles this season is that they lack a "Big" that will draw double teams in the paint and create space for McNeal, James and Matthews. Currently, Coach Williams has started Dwight Burke pretty much every game this year and coincidentally, he leads all the "bigs" with 19.5 minutes per game.
Unfortunately, during those 19.5 minutes, he has a meager stat line with only 2.9 pts, 3.8 rebs, .3 blocks, and a terrible 3.0 fouls. Backing up Burke this season has been sophomore Patrick Hazel, who is averaging only 12.4 minutes per game, but in comparison to Burke, has had averages of 2.4 pts per game, 2.3 rebounds, .4 blocks, and 1.9 fouls.
Looking at the numbers, it would seem that Hazel has better numbers on a per minute basis, but with more experience, I would still prefer Burke over Hazel. The guy I would love to see more of is freshman Chris Otule, who has been slowed this season due to injury. Otule has played in only five games this season, averaging 9.5 minutes each game, but has pulled down 2.2 pts, 1.8 rebounds, .8 blocks, and 1.6 fouls.
The 1.6 fouls is expected, being a freshman and getting used to the fast pace of college ball, but at the same time, I believe that Coach Williams should give him more playing time at the end of each game. He is 6' 10", 245 pounds, and could play a large part in games against the likes of Georgetown, UConn, and Pitt.
Lazar Haywood and Wes Matthews have done the job on the boards thus far, averaging 8.7 and 5.5 rebounds respectively, but having another post presence will be crucial in Marquette establishing itself as a dominant team come the NCAA Tourney.
2. Who on the bench will step up?
Despite beating No. 22 Notre Dame at the Joyce center on Jan. 26, nobody on Marquette's bench scored. Let me repeat that. Nobody on the bench scored. Also, let me add that Dwight Burke did not score either.
This is a very scary stat line for Marquette fans, because next year, 58 of the 71 points were scored by James, McNeal, and Matthews. Granted, Acker did a fantastic job teaming with James and McNeal to shut down McAlarney and Tory Jackson in the Notre Dame game, but somebody on the bench needs to step up and hit some shots.
Acker and freshman Jimmy Butler have played the most off the bench for Marquette, but both are so passive when it comes to hitting open shots. Acker may be small, but has shown over the last few years that he can hit the three. Butler has played well at times this season, but both need to step up and take some of the pressure off of the big three.
3. Will coach Buzz Williams continue to be a favorite as Coach of the Year?
Rookie coach Buzz Williams is exactly what I have been waiting for as a Marquette fan the last four years of my college tenure. Former Coach Tom Crean may have brought the program to the status that they are currently at, and was responsible for recruiting most of the current team, but he is NOT an in-game coach.
Crean had a game plan, and would run it even when it was not working. That is why the Golden Eagles have not been able to get out of the second round of the NCAA's the last three years. The thing that has surprised me the most about Coach Williams is the way he adjusts his gameplan throughout the game.
There is no doubt in my mind that Marquette has played much better in the second half of each game this season, and that is in part due to adjustments made at halftime.
Also, it seems to me that the Golden Eagles have spent much more time shooting three pointers in practice (.361 three-point percentage vs .354 three-point percentage last year with sharpshooter Dan Fitzgerald) and less time practicing free throws (the Golden Eagles do not practice shooting free throws, Coach Williams believes that shooting them is psychological) and it has shown (.714 vs. .706 foot percent this year to last).
So far he has my vote for coach of the year, and if he can continue to knock off ranked opponents, there is a large chance he will win it.
4. How will the rest of the Big East schedule effect Marquette's seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Currently, Marquette sits at 7-0 in the Big East with the following schedule remaining. Excuse the links.
|Jan. 31||No. 23 Georgetown||2:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 3||at DePaul||9:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 6||at South Florida||7:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 10||at No. 21 Villanova||7:30 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 14||St. John's||9:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 17||Seton Hall||8:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 21||at No. 23 Georgetown||2:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|Feb. 25||No. 2 Connecticut||7:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|March 1||at No. 7 Louisville||12:00 PM ET CBS||Tickets | Travel|
|March 4||at No. 3 Pittsburgh||7:30 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
|March 7||No. 15 Syracuse||2:00 PM ET||Tickets | Travel|
Looking at the schedule, Marquette has five "should win" games, facing Depaul and South Florida on the road, and St Johns, Seton Hall, and Georgetown at home. If Marquette beats Georgetown on Saturday, there is a good chance that they could be 10-0 going into Villanova on Feb. 10.
Marquette has three "tough but winnable" games left, facing Villanova at home, Georgetown at home, and Syracuse at home, and three "extremely tough" games left at home against UConn and at Louisville and Pitt.
Therefore, if I was to say that somehow, Marquette won all the should win games, won two-thirds of the "tough but winnable" and lost all the "extremely tough" games, Marquette would finish the Big East season at 14-4, which would put them in the top four in the Big East rankings. It will all come down to how they play out the last five games of the season.
5. Which one of the "Big Three" will take the reigns and lead?
James led the team in scoring two years ago, McNeal last year, and Matthews leads this year. James has matured a lot since freshman year, and needs to stop chucking up bad shots. His passing and defense have more than made up for it this year though. McNeal has been dominant on both the offensive and defensive ends, and Matthews has shined playing more inside and banging with the bigs.
Overall, I think that in order to succeed, the Golden Eagles will need James to step up the most. McNeal and Matthews are usually pretty consistent, but when James is off, the team is off with him.