Marquette's stunning defeat to Florida State, 57-56, in Sunday's final of the Old Spice Classic at the Milk House in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., will take a lot of the sheen off a positive start, but it doesn't entirely undermine Marquette's performance in November.
Having lost four starters from last year's team and then suffering two more significant injuries before the calendar even flips to December, Marquette figured to have struggles against a strong field on Thanksgiving weekend. Until the final minutes of the final game, though, the Golden Eagles were terrific. On Thanksgiving Day, Marquette held off a couple of challenges from a talented Xavier team to win, 71-61. The next day against a then-unbeaten Michigan team, MU did whatever it wanted on offense en route to a 79-65 win.
In the final on Sunday, Marquette built a 17-point lead with just more than 15 minutes left against a Florida State team that, like the previous two opponents, is considered a likely NCAA Tournament team. Marquette, of course, is not -- or at least was not. FSU made a furious comeback as the Golden Eagles went cold, especially from the free-throw line. The loss -- Marquette's third straight in in-season tournament finals -- stings, for sure, but MU fans have to hope that the showing this weekend is a sign that Buzz Williams' bunch can make it five straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the school.
In order to fully appreciate the quality of Marquette's start, it's important to consider what last year's No. 6-seeded team lost. The Three Amigos -- Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal -- combined to win 94 games in four years in Milwaukee. That includes four double-digit-victory seasons in the school's first four years in the rugged Big East. It also includes four NCAA Tournament berths and two excruciating second-round defeats in the last two years.
Along with those three, Dwight Burke, a nominal starter in the frontcourt and stout if foul-prone defender had departed. Junior Cadougan, the heir apparent to James at point guard, ruptured his Achilles' tendon in preseason conditioning and will miss the season. Just a week ago, center Chris Otule broke his foot and is likely out for the season.
Because of the departures and injuries, Williams headed to Florida with a short bench but one with more experience than one might expect. Of the eight Marquette players who have played at least a quarter of the team's minutes so far this season, three are seniors and three are juniors, though two of those juniors come from the Juco ranks and, therefore, have less experience at the Big East level than the typical junior. Still, with Lazar Hayward, David Cubillan, Maurice Acker and Jimmy Butler, Marquette had players who had been in key spots and made big plays before.
Hayward, once an underrated part of Marquette's consistent success, has emerged as an elite player as a senior, one capable of taking an extreme volume of shots. Those who followed the program figured that Lazar would be the go-to guy this season, but it was hard to anticipate him taking 42.8 percent of the shots when he is on the floor for a usage rate of 38.1. Hayward's taking more than 16 shots per game despite averaging just 25 minutes per game. While his 49.1 percent eFG isn't great, it's darn good for a guy taking that many shots, though he hasn't gotten to the foul line as much as a go-to guy ideally would. His current usage rate puts him in Stephen Curry territory, and, while he's not at Curry's level of efficiency, he's not that far off. Hayward's ability to maintain his current levels of efficiency and volume will determine a lot for Marquette's offense. It would also help if he got some help.
Beyond Hayward, Marquette is actually pretty balanced -- which is kind of like saying that beyond Allen Iverson, the early-2000s 76ers were pretty balanced. The next three options for Williams are junior Jimmy Butler, freshman Darius Johnson-Odom and fifth-year senior Maurice Acker. All three are having terrific shooting seasons. Here's a look at the shooting numbers of Marquette's five most-often shooters:
TS% is true-shooting percentage, which incorporates free-throw shooting into the equation. Anything approaching 60 for TS% is good, and Butler, Johnson-Odom and Acker are all beyond that.
As a distant fifth option on the floor last season, Butler showed exceptional efficiency, hitting 53.4 percent of his 2-pointers and getting to the line a ton while converting at 76.8 percent. He also rarely turned the ball over. This season, he's taking shots a rate nearly double last season's, and he's been even more efficient. Butler is far and away the most likely Marquette player to get to the line, taking more than eight free throws for every 10 field-goal attempts. His proficiency at the line betrayed him on Sunday, as Butler made just 3-of-10 in the second-half collapse. Nonetheless, he's been a 68.8-percent shooter after last season's mid-70s rate. Butler's ability to draw contact replaces some of what McNeal brought to last year's team and has since taken with him.
Johnson-Odom and Acker have been far less dynamic than Butler but effective, especially from deep. The freshman, Odom, has made 15-of-30 3-pointers this season, while Acker has hit 9-of-19. It's not a bad way to run an offense -- take a high-volume scorer inside and surround him with a terrific slasher and a couple of shooters. The formula has worked well for Marquette. The other starter, Dwight Buycks has been decent enough as a shooter (38.5 percent on threes), though his 29.3-percent turnover rate is an eyesore.
On defense, Marquette has done two things exceptionally well -- force turnovers and keep the opposition from getting to the foul line. MU has picked opponents' pockets on a quarter of all defensive possessions while permitting fewer than three free-throw attempts per 10 opposition field-goal attempts. The 2006-08 Golden Eagles were terrific at forcing turnovers, but the aggression led to a lot of free throws for the opposition. The 2008-09 Eagles forced fewer turnovers but didn't send opponents to the line nearly as much. This team has figured out how to keep turnovers high and free throws low -- at least so far.
We've previously shown a strong correlation between turnovers-forced rate and free-throws allowed rate. Those teams that can do the former without the latter are rare. Therefore, this is an area in which we should expect Marquette to regress. Either the opposition will start holding onto the ball better or start taking more free throws -- probably both -- but it's unlikely that those rates will continue on their current extreme paths.
When the regression comes, Marquette's defensive efficiency will suffer. One would expect an undersized team like Marquette to struggle on defense. With the tallest player in the rotation standing just 6-foot-7, good teams will force the ball inside for easy buckets and also get a fair share of offensive rebounds. Florida State was 14-for-22 on 2-pointers in the second half and had 12 offensive rebounds for the game. Michigan was stylistically unable to take advantage of Marquette's lack of size, and the Wolverines defense did the offense no favors. Xavier turned it over too often -- 20 times -- but the Musketeers also shot very poorly (20-of-52 on twos), as MU was able to force them into bad shots and perhaps was a bit fortunate that the shots weren't falling.
The good news is that, while many opponents will exploit the Eagles' interior defense, the pesky turnover-forcing defense may not be a mirage. Seven of Marquette's top eight players have steal rates of at least 2.5 percent, which is decent bench mark for defensive sticky fingers. Acker leads the way at 5.3 percent, but Hayward and Butler have seen dramatic increases in their steal rates. A regression for those two is something to watch for, though Marquette appears to have a team-wide commitment to creating turnovers, something it mainly depended on McNeal and James for last season.
As we look forward to the rest of Marquette's season -- games against North Carolina State and Wisconsin as well as 18 Big East battles -- we have to be concerned with the team's depth or lack thereof. The injuries to Cadougan and Otule give Williams a three-man bench, meaning injuries and foul trouble could be devastating to Marquette, especially in the frontcourt. Hayward and Butler are the team's two most indispensable players, and there are no suitable backups ready to pick up major minutes. Lazar is also averaging 5.2 fouls/40 minutes, which is a big part -- along with early-season blowouts -- of why his minutes have been limited. He has to stay out of foul trouble so that he can stay on the floor.
If Marquette can ride its form from the Milk House into the rest of the season and another NCAA Tournament bid, it will be quite an accomplishment, testament to a program that can truly reload rather than rebuild. As it is, the Golden Eagles already have two quality nonconference wins and were tantalizingly close to a third. Those results along with a mid-league finish in the Big East will be enough to keep Marquette in the at-large discussion into March, which is a lot better than most Marquette fans expected entering the season.