And the beat goes on for Marquette University. Looking for their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Golden Eagles head into the 2011-12 season poised to build on last season’s surprise Sweet 16 appearance. That team relied heavily upon the versatility and experience of Jimmy Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. This year’s version of the Golden Eagles will feature a trio of similarly talented and interchangeable players in forwards Jae Crowder and Jamil Wilson and guard Darius Johnson-Odom.
Key Golden Eagles Stat: 64
Marquette received an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament despite an RPI of 64. Only USC (67) had a worse RPI among the at-large pool.
Coach Buzz Williams used his connections within the junior college circuit to land Crowder, a 6'6" forward who was billed coming in as a virtual clone of Lazar Hayward, an undersized but tough inside-out player who preceded Butler as a first-round pick.
Crowder lived up to the hype for the most part, averaging 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while also knocking down 42 3-pointers. He’ll need to up those numbers this year while also becoming much better on the defensive end, as his penchant for getting into early foul trouble a year ago left MU shorthanded up front on a number of occasions.
Giving Williams and MU more firepower alongside Crowder will be Wilson, a native of nearby Racine, Wis., who left Oregon after a moderately successful freshman year in 2009-10. He used his redshirt year at MU to add both toughness as well as size to his 6'7", 220-pound frame, and he enters his first competitive season with the Golden Eagles expected to play anywhere from center in a small lineup to point guard, depending upon what Williams needs at the time.
Providing depth will be sophomore shooter Jamail Jones and freshman Juan Anderson, both of whom are athletic wings.
In the pivot, MU will hope for more progress from both junior Chris Otule and sophomore Davante Gardner, both of whom have developed from major projects into a promising two-headed monster at center. The 6'11", 265-pound Otule gives MU some intimidating size and shot-blocking capability on the defensive end and on the boards. The 6'8", 290-pound Gardner, meanwhile, is a surprisingly adept scorer on the block despite both height and quickness limitations.
Getting both to play at a consistently high level will be key for an MU team that has struggled for years against the bigger, stronger teams the Big East typically has to offer.
Johnson-Odom, a second team All-Big East selection as a junior, is poised to build on his success after a productive summer that saw him turn heads at LeBron James’ Nike Skills camp. The lefthander has become almost as adept at attacking the basket as he is at pulling up from long range, and the 15.8 points per game and 71 3-pointers he made last season should jump even further as Williams now puts the offensive onus on his shoulders.
Junior Cadougan enters as the unquestioned favorite to start at point guard. He gives the Golden Eagles their first true pass-first floor general in a few seasons, a trait the team seemed to thrive upon last year when he played in a backup role. His shot is improving, but with gunners like Crowder, Johnson-Odom and incoming freshman Todd Mayo (yes, O.J. Mayo’s brother) expected to fill that role, Cadougan will do well to continue to focus on distributing while also penetrating the lane when possible.
Adding depth in the backcourt will be Vander Blue, a highly rated in-state recruit who suffered through a forgettable freshman campaign, as well as incoming freshman Derrick Wilson, an undersized yet tough combo guard. Blue should earn plenty of minutes again based on his ability to defend multiple positions.
Last season’s Sweet 16 appearance energized a fan base that hadn’t experienced that type of excitement since 2003, when Dwyane Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four. It also raises the expectation level heading into Year 4 of Williams’ tenure. Once again courted in the offseason by Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, he received a big raise to stay in Milwaukee.
Now, with as much talent as he’s had, not to mention a frontcourt that finally looks like it will be able to hold its own against the Big East’s best, the belief is that the Golden Eagles should be able to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Big East Prediction: 5th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out