Marquette Basketball: Biggest Improvement Each Returning Player Must Make
Despite Vander Blue's somewhat puzzling decision to forgo his final season in Milwaukee to enter the NBA draft, the Golden Eagles should have yet another successful season in 2013-14 behind head coach Buzz Williams.
Not only does the team bring back plenty of talent, minus Blue and senior Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett, but Williams has also brought in a top-20 recruiting class and expects some of those freshmen to be impact players instantly.
For purpose of this article, however, we will take a look at the seven returning players for the Golden Eagles and what each needs to improve upon as each is a year older and more experienced, having been part of an Elite Eight squad in 2013.
Jake Thomas—Shoot the Ball
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Jake Thomas came to Marquette after two seasons at South Dakota, in which he was a high-volume sharpshooter. After red-shirting one season, Thomas became eligible to play in 2012-13 but never really found his niche.
Thomas' two biggest moments of the year came on an and-one against Butler at the Maui Invitational, as well as a four-point play in defeating Syracuse at home. On the year, Thomas only connected on 10 three-pointers though, while he hit 86 and 89 in his first two collegiate seasons, respectively.
After flirting with the idea of transferring, Thomas will be back as a fifth-year senior. Though his minutes could be limited as they were last season, Thomas needs to get in the game and shoot some threes.
Marquette was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation last season. Thomas often seemed hesitant to pull the trigger, often pump faking and passing up an open look to defer to his fellow backcourt mates. Thomas needs an early-season confidence boost to get him going.
Todd Mayo—Get Focused
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After a promising freshman season in 2011-12, Mayo never figured it out as a sophomore. Mayo was ineligible during the fall semester, so he only became eligible to play starting in late December which may have cost him opportunities to prove himself in nonconference play.
As a freshman, Mayo averaged 7.9 points and 2.1 rebounds in a solid 21.1 minutes off the bench. As a sophomore, however, he averaged 5.3 points and 1.2 rebounds in only 14.1 minutes. Both his field-goal and three-point percentages dropped by nearly six points as well.
Mayo was also being rumored to transfer from Marquette, but with Blue's departure comes a great chance for Mayo to regain Coach Williams' confidence. Whether Mayo starts at shooting guard or comes off the bench, his minutes and role on the team will be significantly more as a junior.
Steve Taylor Jr.—Find a Position
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As a true freshman, having recently won a state championship at Simeon alongside highly-touted recruit Jabari Parker, Taylor Jr. averaged 3.0 points and 2.1 rebounds in 8.6 minutes for the Golden Eagles, while shooting 53 percent.
Taylor Jr. stands 6'7" and weighs 200 pounds. With Chris Otule's return and Jameel McKay's arrival, Marquette appeared to have quite the logjam in their frontcourt for the upcoming season, as Taylor Jr., Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson and Juan Anderson all played power forward or center.
Anderson has decided to transfer and Wilson could very well slide into the small forward position as he is the team's best three-point shooter. With a starting frontcourt of Wilson, McKay and Otule, Taylor Jr. could very well be the backup power forward alongside Gardner.
As many know, Coach Williams plays his bench with more regularity than almost anyone in the business, so this could be a best case scenario. Taylor Jr. doesn't have a proven outside shot, so by playing in the post, he could get a bunch of easy buckets when teams collapse and double-team the excellent passing Gardner in the paint.
Derrick Wilson—Replace Junior Cadougan
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When you look at Wilson's stat sheet, nothing stands out and that may be saying it politely. The sophomore from Anchorage, Alaska, averaged 1.1 points, 0.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 13.1 minutes last season, slightly above his freshman season numbers behind Cadougan.
The question now becomes, who replaces Cadougan as the starting point guard? If you answered Wilson to that, you'd be correct, though that limits it to two players. Derrick Wilson will be a junior with experience but less upside, while freshman Duane Wilson will be hungry to win the job.
Coach Williams' system has proven it doesn't matter who starts, as the team's best returning player in Davante Gardner may never be a regular starter during his four-year career. Derrick Wilson's minutes and production will increase this season, whether or not he starts games.
Wilson was often in at the end of close games this past season as he is a lockdown defender. His shooting needs work, though Cadougan improved steadily yet was never great offensively. Wilson's best characteristic is that he won't turn the ball over, a flaw in Cadougan's game at times.
Chris Otule—Assertiveness on Offense
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Chris Otule will be back for a sixth season in Milwaukee next winter, in what he hopes to be a second straight injury-free season as his early career was plagued by injuries. The 6'11" center from Texas is known as a shot blocker and rebounder, though he showed flashes of scoring in 2012-13.
In his third through fifth years at Marquette, Otule averaged 5.1, 5.0 and 5.1 points, respectively. Both myself and the Marquette nation have higher hopes for Otule as a scorer in what should be his last season as a Golden Eagle in 2013-14.
Otule scored in double figures in the first two games of last season, as well as two double-digit efforts in the NCAA tournament over Davidson and Miami. His most impressive performance, however, came against Notre Dame in March.
On Senior Day, which Otule ironically did not participate in, he scored 16 points on perfect 8-of-8 shooting, while matched up with All-Big East big man Jack Cooley of Notre Dame. If Otule can up his scoring average to even just seven or eight points a night, that would be huge.
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Jamil Wilson's redshirt junior season had two halves: pre- and post-Feb. 6. Wilson started the season right by scoring in double figures in four of the first five contests, but then only scored 10-plus points in four of the following 14 matchups.
After scoring 10 points in a Feb. 6 blowout win at South Florida, Wilson went on to score in double figures in 13 of the next 14 contests. Not only did his three-point shot start dropping with more regularity, but he started to aggressively attack the basket and show off his athleticism.
Most of the college basketball season, everyone was under the impression that Marquette lacked a true superstar. But by year's end, both Vander Blue and Wilson began seriously contemplating leaving school for the NBA, which luckily only Blue bought in on.
Wilson was probably Marquette's third best player last year, behind Blue and Davante Gardner. Wilson and Gardner were the backup power forward and center, though Williams may decide to utilize his abundance of bigs and move Wilson to starting small forward. Whatever his role, Wilson needs to become a consistent scorer for Marquette to retain their recent success.
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Instead of examining the 6'8", 290-pound Gardner's game for flaws, I'm mostly going to describe what the big fellow does well. First, he is an excellent free-throw shooter, connecting on nearly 84 percent of his attempts. He also gets to the line often at five times per game, which makes it even more impressive.
Gardner does not need to lose weight or strictly work on conditioning either. He has become the type of player that he is because of his build and his ability to know how to play within himself. That hasn't stopped him from coast-to-coast euro-step layups or icing the game with late free throws though either.
Yes, Gardner only played 21 minutes off the bench as a junior behind Chris Otule. But in the games that Coach Williams really needed Gardner, he was on the court. He played 33 minutes in both of Marquette's showdowns with Syracuse, proving his conditioning is not a major area of concern.
Gardner will be the top option on offense for Marquette, despite possibly coming off the bench yet again. What may limit Gardner is the fact that he is not the intimidating defensive force that Otule is. He isn't prone to fouling, but an extra focus on the defensive end could do wonders for Gardner's game. Watch out for Gardner to break out a senior.