When Tom Crean left Marquette in 2008 to take the head coaching job at Indiana, the Golden Eagles surprised some observers by turning to then-assistant coach Buzz Williams. In his three full seasons at the helm, however, Williams has consistently made his bosses look smart. Marquette has now made six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the early indications suggest this year's 8-0 team may be the best since a certain rather prominent member of the Miami Heat led this program to the 2003 Final Four.
So much for the good news, now for the fine print. I said "early" indications. Take all the usual "it's only December" caveats and multiply them by two. We still have precious few data points on Marquette, and frankly one of the ones we do have -- a two-point win over Norfolk State in the Virgin Islands right before Thanksgiving -- isn't terribly complimentary. That being said, I think Williams' team merits your attention -- even if they like every other team can suffer an occasional off night. Here's why....
Apparently no one told Marquette they're not supposed to be this good.
Marquette under Williams has consistently performed at a very high level on offense, but this season may set a new standard even for Williams. In their first eight games MU's scored 1.16 points per possession, a degree of efficiency that will win you a lot of games in any conference. True, the unbelievable two-point shooting (currently 55 percent) may come down to earth as the level of competition improves, but we know from experience with this program that the minuscule turnover rate (17 percent) and frequent visits to the free throw line are both likely here to stay. Once again in 2012 Big East defenses will have a tough time preventing Marquette from scoring well over a point per trip.
What's really surprising, however, is that so far this defense has been much, much better than expected, and indeed far tougher than anything seen in Milwaukee for quite some time. Exhibit A here is MU's 61-54 win at Wisconsin last Saturday, a victory which gives Williams a sound bite that customarily only Bo Ryan can claim: "My team just won in Madison."
The Badgers possess one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, but in that game Ryan's team was held to just 0.82 points per possession. In effect Williams had his team employ a full-court press on just one player: Wisconsin star Jordan Taylor. It worked: Taylor was held to 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting and committed a career-high five turnovers. (No, five doesn't sound like a lot. But this is Jordan Taylor and Wisconsin we're talking about.) In recent years I could certainly envision Marquette winning a game in Madison, but I never could have imagined them doing it this way, in a true Big Ten-style defensive war.
That's not to say defense is now the only way Marquette has of winning games, of course. Just this week Williams' team won a 79-77 shootout against Washington in Madison Square Garden. At 73 possessions, that game won't rank as MU's strongest defensive effort. Still, I was at the Garden that night and it was striking to note how some of Williams' most active bench coaching came during his team's defensive possessions.
Williams himself has said that his team's "success will be dependent on our defensive efficiency." I think that is exactly right. With this team, excellent offense is more or less a given. But if the offense is accompanied by a very good defense, it will officially be time to tell Syracuse and Louisville that they have competition atop the Big East this season. That's one reason you should be paying attention to Marquette, even in December.
Time to rethink the cliches about junior-college players
With the rise of prep academies, the role of the junior-college recruit was widely assumed to be diminishing -- at least for major-conference programs. The theory was that the best players nationally were now being identified early and channeled into prep programs that maximize a student's chances of proceeding directly to a D-I school.
That may be the overall tendency, but apparently there are exceptions to the rule. And in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, Williams has uncovered two outstanding exceptions. Beating junior-college bushes that many Big East coaches don't even bother with, Williams found two players that conceivably could both be named first-team All-Big East this March. (Phrased more precisely, Johnson-Odom and Crowder will deserve to be first-team All-Big East if they keep performing at their current levels.) In fact with the possible exception of Missouri's Ricardo Ratliffe, there's little doubt that in Johnson-Odom and Crowder you're looking at the top two junior-college products in all of Division I -- on the same team.
Don't be fooled by the fact that Johnson-Odom has the higher scoring average (20 a game, vs. 17 for Crowder). That's purely a result of Johnson-Odom getting more minutes. But when they're in the game these two players are virtually identical in many ways, even though DJO is a 6-2 combo guard and Crowder, at 6-6, is an undersized big man. Both devote 40 percent of their attempts to threes and are extremely accurate from both sides of the arc. Indeed if Crowder continues to drain anything close to 67 percent of his twos while carrying a huge load on offense and is not named first-team All-Big East, I can promise you the league office will be getting a stern memo from me come March.
Players that didn't go to junior college can be good too.
One key factor in Marquette's newfound defensive prowess has been the emergence of 6-4 sophomore Vander Blue, who this season has already recorded 17 steals in just 384 personal defensive possessions. Point guard Junior Cadougan, a 6-1 junior, has upped his assist rate noticeably while cutting down on his turnovers. And in his limited minutes sophomore Davante Gardner is fooling opponents in a way that's almost unfair. Opposing defenses see a player who's 6-8 and 290 and naturally assume they can foul him without penalty. Big mistake: at 77 percent Gardner's actually as reliable at the line as Johnson-Odom.
Remember when I said we have few data points on the Golden Eagles? That may continue for a while. It's possible Williams' team will stay undefeated all the way up to a January 4 road game at Georgetown. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on a Marquette team that's already surprised us in so many different ways.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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