Tomorrow, the suddenly offensively potent (perhaps) St. John's Red Storm faces the surprising Marquette Golden Eagles in the friendly confines of the on-campus Carnesecca Arena. Given what happened last week - nut punches, bleeding, shot clock malfunctions and a general air of disaster despite the crowd - here's hoping for something less eventful, and a win.
In preparation for the game, I asked Tim and Rob, fine fellows at Marquette-dedicated Cracked Sidewalks, to give me their take on the Marquette team - a surprising 3-point shooting squad that is in the top half of the league despite graduating their three star guards. Good talent was brought in, and good coaching has made the team one of the surprises in the Big East. Let's learn a little more about 'em, shall we?
(My answers to their questions are on their Know Your Opponent post.)
1- What's the story around the team in Buzz Williams' second year? With so few returning minutes, I pegged the Golden Eagles as an NIT team as best going into the season. Is the NCAA bubble a surprise, or was this kind of record within the realm of possibility? How has the team dealt with a lack of a big-man presence? When did you get an indication the team would be a challenger this year?
Buzz has done a great job this year. You weren't alone in pegging the Golden Eagles as an NIT team, our blogging team was also really bearish on the team this year, with the most aggressive estimate as 9-9! The NCAA bubble is a complete surprise. Honestly, I don't even know how the team has dealt with a lack of a big-man but that's been the program's M.O. for the past five years. Offensively, this year it comes down to shooting the three.
Defensively, it boils down to us defending the three very well, not being very good on the interior, plus some Yeoman's work by Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler. Our first indication of when the team would be a challenger came during that initial four game stretch (@WVU, Nova, GU, @Nova). Despite going 1-3, the team was competitive in every game, and downright should have won some of them.
2- I usually leave roster questions for third, but I have to ask – WTF? Jimmy Butler and Lazar Hayward were good last year, but I thought having Maurice Acker and David Cubillan out there would doom the team. Cubillan’s gotten more efficient, and Acker’s increased his usage AND is burning the nets. There was no indication that he could play like this, right? What is Buzz feeding these kids? I can’t get my head around how much better some of the players are than I thought they would be.
Ask Tim about Maurice Acker (code for -- Tim buried Acker before the season started and is now quite used to the taste of fresh crow). Mo seems to be more of a rhythm player, where he does better with more reps. Plus, Acker got plenty of minutes in reserve late last year, and contributed in some key stretches. Acker's defense against Kyle McAlarney was a key impact to us winning @ND last year. He does a great job protecting the ball, and has picked his spots with shooting the jumper where his long-range efficiency is extraordinary. [David] Cubillan was actually really efficient his freshmen year and part of his sophomore year, but then hurt his shoulders and has been working back since then. Of course, after almost every loss, there are invariably multiple posts about how our guards are undersized and not BE-caliber. It's not their fault, but they are working hard and minimizing mistakes -- both guys have responded with fine senior seasons to date.
3- Can you give me a rundown of the roster – starters with a note on what they do well, and what they do poorly, and their backups?
Lazar, Jimmy Butler, and Darius Johnson-Odom, aka DJO. Lazar Hayward is the double-double guy that defends the post at 6'6 but takes your big man out to the wing for threes. Hayward is tough as nails, and his offensive versatility creates matchup problems for most opponents. Jimmy Butler's entire game consists of grabbing offensive rebounds and getting fouled or driving to the hoop and getting fouled. Butler is a remarkably efficient player who never plays out of character. Even in a much more expanded role this season, you'll rarely see Butler attempt to do something on the court that does not fit his strengths. DJO is a newcomer that shoots remarkably well from three, but possesses the ability to head to the hoop for a bucket. He's a lefty and is the one player on the MU roster who can get his shot off the dribble nearly every time.
4- What’s in the future for Marquette? When will the Golden Eagles have an actual big man?
This is another question that pops up invariably after every loss. Marquette's had some bad luck with recent big men recruits, but Buzz is still working it. We just hope that they'll continue to recruit a big man every year and then hope one or two develop to create a virtuous cycle. Even without a classic big Buzz has been adept at adjusting his system to the personnel at hand, and he's getting a lot of mileage with that approach despite this roster's limitations. He's loaded up on incoming backcourt talent again next season, and folks around the program are hoping 6'10" Chris Otule, redshirting this year, will contribute as a sophomore.
5- Out in the St. John’s "fanosphere" (a word I just coined because I could… and because I haven’t had enough coffee), there is occasional whining about the name "Red Storm" over "Redmen" (note: the school switched in ’94 to avoid the very obvious "redmen is a racist slur", helped along by the former logo of a Native American with a huge caricature nose dribbling). As a follower of a team that switched from "Warriors" to "Golden Eagles," how did the switch go with the fans? Why the switch – "Warrior" is certainly more positive than "Redman"?
The switch went over like a proverbial lead balloon and remains an issue with a certain fraction of the alumni base. We have recapped the dénouement here a bit. The subject absolutely wears me out.