Marquette at St. John's pregame: Q&A with Cracked Sidewalks + Anonymous Eagle

Proudly flying the flag. - Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Marquette has surged from a preseason bubble team to a team with a chance to win the Big East regular season title outright. We delve into the Golden Eagles, new Big East, and what the postseason hopes look like for Marquette.

It's the Friday morning before the Biog East Tournament. I'm filled with coffee and an apple fritter from Do-Rite Donuts (if you're in Chicago, you have to go early and get one, for real) and am prepping our stat-filled pregame post for the St. John's/ Marquette tilt tomorrow (where the Johnnies will honor NYC's first responders).

No game prep for Marquette is complete without talking to some of the excellent bloggers who cover the team, take them to task, and fill your mind with smarts and humor like few other groupings of writers can.

So this week, we are joined by esteemed homeslices Cracked Sidewalks (on Twitter) and Anonymous Eagle (on Twitter) to talk Marquette hoops. (Next time, since Marquette will be in the new Big East, we'll add Paint Touches as well.)

Covered: the Marquette surge from mediocre to the penthouse, whether this team should have Final Four aspirations, how to beat the Golden Eagles, and the excitement of the future "C7" conference, which even ESPN, the sports entertainment network that covers news it shows on its networks, will have to call "the Big East."

Eventuallly.

See my responses to Cracked Sidewalks' questions: Know Your Opponent: Q&A with Rumble in the Garden


RUMBLE: In my eyes, this surge by Marquette - a shot at finishing with the regular season Big East championship before the Great Schism - comes out of nowhere. What changed between preseason expectations and in-season execution to make the ex-Warriors so formidable? (I noted a few weeks ago that the Eagles were improving on both sides of the ball over the course of the Big East season.)

Cracked Sidewalks: The run by #mubb has surprised us too… we thought that NEXT year was the year. Marquette has the best offense in the Big East despite its reputation as a team that can’t shoot it well. Buzz has one helluva system when you realize MU lost two of the premier offensive forces in the Big East in the off-season (Crowder and Johnson-Odom) and didn’t replace them with any flashy new talent. Kudos to Buzz for his commitment to his system, and his ability to develop unsung talent.

Back to the offense … Luke Winn at CNNSI pointed out that MU has the largest disparity between 2pt FG% and 3pt FG% in the nation. Facts are facts but MU hits just enough deep shots to make this all work. With a very veteran team – after losing to Marquette, Jamie Dixon noted that Buzz did a good job of ‘staying old’ with his roster. It goes 10 deep and Buzz will routinely do hockey-style lineup changes, so any number of combinations work for the Warriors.

Still this team’s Achilles’ heel continues to be turnovers, which helps keep a lot of opponents in games.

Anonymous Eagle: We wrote about this after the win over Notre Dame last weekend -- the rise to the top of the Big East is not only a change from preseason expectations, it's a 180 from where Marquette was in the middle of December.

Here's the example I've used time and again to explain just how bleak things looked two-and-a-half months ago: Marquette was trailing UW-Green Bay (the university, not the Packers' rec-league team) by one with about 10 seconds left and took a timeout to draw up a final play. Who'd the ball go to? Not Vander Blue. Not Jamil Wilson. Not Junior Cadougan.

Instead, we got the ball to Jake Thomas, our walk-on three-point specialist who's shooting about 25% from distance this year. Hold onto your butts: it, uh, didn't work.

The difference since then, as best I can tell: Marquette's done a very, very good job of playing to its strengths (briefly: two-point shooting, hitting the offensive glass, getting to the line, making more free throws than the other team attempts) while hiding its weaknesses (hideous three-point shooting, giving up offensive rebounds).

There are hiccups every now and again -- the 13-point first half against Cincinnati, then ten-minute stretch against Cuse when MU attempted like 8 threes (and missed them all), the anemic first half against Rutgers this past Tuesday -- but, to use Coach Buzz's term, Marquette generally gets back to playing like "us" pretty quickly.

RUMBLE: How will I know that Marquette is on the right track at the ten minute mark in the first half? (Or are they a second half team? If so, how will I know they have St. John's right where they want them?)

Anonymous Eagle: MU gets sideways when (1) they're sloppy with the ball and (2) they eschew paint touches in favor of mindlessly swinging the ball around the perimeter and chucking three-point attempts as the shot clock is set to expire. So long as Junior Cadougan isn't pulling his annoying Mr. Hyde on the Road routine -- and that's been a major problem away from the Bradley Center; somehow, Cadougan goes from top-5 Big East point guard to "not much better than Tom Maayan" whenever the team leaves Milwaukee -- and we're working the ball inside, we should be in good shape.

And, yeah, Marquette has been a pretty strong second-half team this season; just in the last couple weeks, they've blown Seton Hall's doors off after being tied at halftime, ripped past Syracuse after being down double-digits in the first half, and woke up from a short winter's nap to nip Rutgers on the road. I'm not sure what the explanation for that is, other than: Marquette plays really damn hard all the time, and when you play that hard for that long, good things eventually happen. (How was that for a non-answer?)

Cracked Sidewalks: MU has come from behind in Big East play late a few times this year, most notably at USF and at Rutgers. That said, the team has struggled in the early minutes of games more than you’d expect. As mentioned previously, if the number of turnovers is low, then Marquette is probably on the right track.

RUMBLE: Ok, what I really want to know - how deficient is the defense? Will Marquette, for example, allow enough shots at the rim and foul enough for the Johnnies to keep pace with the size and aggressiveness of Buzz Williams' team?

Anonymous Eagle: It's not half-bad, and it's gotten much better since center Chris Otule (who missed most of last season with a busted ACL) got his legs back and became the defensive force that Marquette fans came to know and love two years ago.

Without Jae Crowder (and, to an extent, Darius Johnson-Odom, who I always thought was an underrated defender), Marquette isn't the same unit that turned opponents over like crazy in 2011-'12, and we haven't been great at defending the backboards for a few years, but unless you've got three-point shooters aplenty, you're probably not going to strafe Marquette.

Shots at the rim are usually hard to come by, mostly because of Coach Buzz's dogged insistence on doubling down on every paint touch. That philosophy, of course, leads to wide-open looks from distance, but most college teams don't have the shooters to exploit it.

Marquette typically doesn't foul a ton either (their FTA/FGA rate is 32%, which ranks 80th in the nation, according to KenPom), unless Karl Hess and his merry band of buttfaces are calling the game, in which case you can probably expect a parade to the line.

Cracked Sidewalks: The weak point of the defense is the three point arc. Buzz puts a premium on preventing paint touches. What ends up happening is that help defense can slip and/or rotations can be late, which makes open shots are available.

Marquette is inconsistent on the defensive glass. The eFG% defense in general can be hot and cold, typically even by the half. Having said all that, it is rare for Marquette to lose a game because of their defense. Typically, Marquette loses because the offense goes in the tank.

RUMBLE: Could this be an Elite Eight/ Final Four team? Are the fans excited about this squad relative to earlier years in the Big East?

Cracked Sidewalks: We actually looked at this earlier this week. Bottom line… MU’s offense meets the profile of an Elite 8 team but the defense doesn’t. Matchups are the obvious determinant.

As for the squad, it seems like the excitement level has become exponential in the past two weeks. With the big home wins against Syracuse and Notre Dame, the crowds were electric. Add that the team is playing for a share of the BE title on Saturday, and the excitement level has grown immensely.

Anonymous Eagle: Nah, I don't think so.

We've said since the season started that there's a clear demarcation between the top four or five teams in the country and the second tier, and that's proven to be the case whenever Marquette has tangled with one of the heavies this season.

I don't have an adjective that can adequately describe how thoroughly Florida eviscerated MU back in November, and Louisville decked us with a haymaker that had us picking up our teeth for days afterward. Marquette just doesn't have the talent to hang with the Floridas and Louisvilles and Dukes and, ugh, Indianas of the world. Playing hard can cover up a lot of sins, but it can't cover up talent gaps that large.

I'm not sure if the fans have totally embraced this year's Marquette team, for a few reasons: for one, there's not really an alpha dog for the fans to rally around -- no Jae, no DJO, no Jimmy Butler, no Lazar Hayward, no Dom James, no Jerel McNeal, no Wes Matthews -- and for two, Marquette's not really playing an aesthetically pleasing style this year. MU's tempo has dropped to 241st in the country (after ranking 16th in terms of pace last season), and when they're going bad (i.e., turning the ball over, chucking threes in the vague direction of the hoop), they're really tough to watch.

Which makes it ironic (note: it's probably not ironic; I am a child of the '90s and Alanis Morrissette permanently compromised my ability to use the term correctly) that this Marquette team might end up as the most successful squad in Marquette's tenure in the Big East.

RUMBLE: Here's a toast to the new Big East. Is this going to work? (And define "work" in any manner you desire.)

Cracked Sidewalks: Yes this is going to work out … in fact, this is better than the C7 could have hoped.

The schools keep their NCAA shares, the Big East name and the rights to run the tourney at MSG. Moreover, by getting away from the Leftover EAST (LEAST) in this calendar year the programs can charge ahead with no ambiguity. This will help with recruiting, scheduling, brand management and continuity.

Seriously, did anybody think the basketball-only schools would be driving the bus? Well, they are and at this point the future remains just as bright as ever for the programs involved.

Anonymous Eagle: Is it going to work? MY MAN: it's already worked.

If I told you last summer that, come July 2013, the basketball-only Big East schools (1) wouldn't be stuck playing the UCFs and Houstons and SMUs of the world and (2) would get to keep the Big East name and (3) would still be able to play their conference tourney in the Garden and (4) wouldn't have to deal with all the B.S. and uncertainty engendered by sharing the conference with football schools AND (5) would have a fat new media deal that will double what we were getting in the halcyon days of Big East v.1.5, you would've sacrificed your pinky finger to make it happen, right?

THAT'S WHERE WE ARE, BABY. Life is good.

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