The Marquette Golden Eagles (5-3) entered Tempe, Ariz. with a lot of questions but walked out of Anaheim with some important answers.
Marquette's four-game road trip entailing a matchup against Arizona State University and a trip to Cal-State Fullerton for the Wooden Legacy Classic resulted in a 2-2 record but provided some much-needed clarity on the roster.
After lackluster performances at home against Ohio State and New Hampshire, the Golden Eagles were expected by many to struggle in their first road game of the year against the Sun Devils.
The first half of the game met those lowly expectations, as Marquette started the trip sloppily and went into the locker room trailing 43-33. Things started clicking in the second half, as Jake Thomas finally found his stroke from beyond the arc. Thomas drilled five threes and was the catalyst of Marquette's second-half rally.
The Golden Eagles couldn't overcome Jahii Carson's 23 points, however, and Derrick Wilson's last-second layup was swatted away by Jordan Bachynski to seal the victory.
Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Wooden Legacy tournament, and Marquette was given the not-so-easy draw of the tournament's host, Cal-State Fullerton. Marquette wasn't a gracious guest, drubbing the Titans by a score of 86-66. Jamil Wilson had his first break-out game of the season, scoring a career-high 24 points, while Davante Gardner and Jajuan Johnson chimed in with 18 points in the win.
In the semifinals, Marquette met a George Washington squad who knocked off Miami (Fla.) in overtime in the first round. The Golden Eagles got off to a blazing start and maintained it thanks to 20 points from Gardner.
Marquette left California with a bad taste in its mouth after reverting back to its old self against a gritty San Diego State squad. The Golden Eagles were unable to cover Xavier Thames, who scored 27 of the Aztecs' 67 points in the defeat. Nothing looked in sync for head coach Buzz Williams' squad on Sunday night.
Although the Golden Eagles return home as runners-up in the Wooden Legacy, there were plenty of positive takeaways from the West Coast swing.
The point guard question was answered last week, as Derrick Wilson emerged as a reasonable threat to score. After attempting just 10 shots in the first four games of the season, Wilson threw up 30 during the six-day trip. Wilson averaged 10 points a game in the games and shot 50 percent from the floor.
Along with his newfound offensive prowess, Wilson managed to keep a solid assist-to-turnover ratio. He dished out 19 assists in the four games and limited himself to only seven turnovers, including a turnover-free game against Arizona State, in which he played 39 minutes.
Marquette's 10th-ranked 2013 recruiting class, according to Scout.com, shone brighter than the California sun over the weekend.
Johnson scored nine points and logged 25 minutes on Tuesday against Arizona State and had a coming out party against Cal-State Fullerton with 18 points and a perfect day from the three-point line. On Sunday night, Deonte Burton scored 15 points off of the bench and was a much-needed spark for the struggling offense.
Johnson and Burton haven't been steady contributors, but they have shown the ability to make plays in key minutes.
Marquette's offense finally looked like a fluid unit and much of that was because of Jake Thomas. The sharp-shooting transfer from South Dakota had been a disappointment in his first season as a Golden Eagle. It appeared as if Thomas would be going through another rough year, until he heated up against the Sun Devils.
Thomas went 5-of-12 from beyond the arc in 36 minutes against Arizona State and kept his team in the game with his sudden hot streak. He only scored three points in the victory over Cal-State but broke out again with 13 points on 3-of-5 from deep against George Washington.
Thomas certainly stepped up his game on the road trip, but whether he will manage to stay on this pace will be interesting to keep an eye on as nonconference play concludes.
As the Golden Eagles prepare for an in-state rivalry game against the undefeated and eighth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, they will have plenty of positives to build on in practice. Wilson proved he had the ability to be more than just a game manager, Johnson and Burton showed they can contribute in marginal minutes and Thomas may have rediscovered his shooting stroke from his South Dakota days that resulted in a 44 percent three-point percentage in the 2009-10 season.
The Golden Eagles shouldn't be happy with coming up short in the Wooden Legacy Classic, but they should have boarded the plane back to Milwaukee feeling much better than they did when they left.