The Marquette Golden Eagles are optimistic about the 2008-2009 men's college basketball season despite losing former head coach Tom Crean and four young players during the offseason.
Crean infamously left to fill the coaching vacancy at Indiana to try to restore the luster to the program's once-proud name. While Crean's departure made the biggest headlines, Marquette also lost a total of four players—two freshmen and two recruits.
Trevor Mbakwe, a freshman forward, left to play for Tubby Smith in Minnesota. Another freshman, guard Scott Christopherson, now plays for Iowa State. I hope they both enjoy playing for mediocre teams in mediocre basketball conferences.
Marquette also lost recruits Nick Williams and Tyshawn Taylor, both guards, to Indiana and Kansas, respectively.
While this youth exile will probably compromise the immediate future of the program (2009-2011), the present still looks solid for Marquette.
The new head coach, Buzz Williams, has a good eye for basketball talent, which will undoubtedly help the future recruiting efforts. He brought top-ranked scouting classes to programs less prestigious than Marquette's, including at Texas A&M, Colorado State, and Northwestern State.
His experience as a head coach is limited, but for those optimists, at least he has some kind of head coaching experience. Williams worked one season as the head coach at the University of New Orleans. His team went 14-17 overall and 9-9 in the Sun Belt Conference.
While the departure of the players named above will impact this season, the players who returned will have an even bigger impact.
I'm speaking, of course, about the backcourt of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews.
James and McNeal both have flirted with the NBA Draft, and both have returned to play for Marquette in their senior seasons. When people talk Marquette, McNeal and James always come up, and rightfully so, but I think that Matthews is poised for a breakout senior season.
Outside of these three, however, the starting lineup is still in flux. The fourth starting spot will likely belong to junior forward Lazar Hayward, who was the team's best three-point shooter last season in terms of percentage.
The final starter at the center spot is the biggest question mark by far for Marquette. Dwight Burke, a 6'8" senior forward, may start at the five, but he will be terribly overmatched by the dominant big men of the Big East Conference.
Freshman Chris Otule, the team's only true center that will play this season, is big enough to play significant minutes, but he will have common freshman problems, namely offensive struggles and conditioning issues.
When James, McNeal, and Matthews need rest, Maurice Acker, David Cubillan, Jimmy Butler, and Joseph Fulce will fill in nicely.
Acker is a 5'8" junior point guard transfer from Ball State who is a smart passer. Cubillan is a 6' shooting guard who can stroke the three and is an intense defender.
Butler and Fulce are both junior college transfers from 10th-ranked Tyler Junior College in Texas. They are guard-forward combo players with similar size to Matthews. Butler led his team in scoring with over 18 points per game.
Fulce and coach Williams have a long history together. Fulce was going to play at Texas A&M, but academic issues forced him out of that program. The next year, his grades improved and he committed to play for Williams at UNO. After Williams left that job, Fulce went to play at Tyler.
Now, the planets have finally aligned, and Fulce is finally playing for Coach Williams. Lucky for Marquette.
Fulce is a very athletic player who can slash to the basket, score points, and collect rebounds.
When all is said and done, I think Marquette will be floating near the top of the Big East. They will play at least one game against a lower seed in the conference tournament, and the same will probably be true in the Big Dance.
The talent of the three guards will carry the team a long way. The chemistry of the team cannot be understated either. The starters and important reserves have been playing together for a couple of years, and even the new guys have familiar faces around them.
Where Marquette will fall short is in the same place they fell short last year: They simply will not have an answer for dominant centers. Roy Hibbert, David Padgett, Hasheem Thabeet, and Brook and Robin Lopez all showed that Marquette is deficient in the front line, and that's what separates the Golden Eagles from the top teams in the nation.
Verdict: Fifth in the Big East, 21-24 wins, second round exit in the NCAA Tournament