The Marquette Golden Eagles are familiar with adverse situations. As last Friday night showed, they also are familiar with continued successes during those difficult times.
Three starters, including leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom, were suspended for the first half against West Virginia for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Johnson-Odom, along with junior guard Junior Cadougan and sophomore guard Vander Blue, watched from the sidelines as six available players kept the score within reach for 20 minutes, trailing by 11 at halftime.
It was another gutsy performance for a Marquette team with its back against the wall, and the starters came back in and outscored the Mountaineers 40-28 in the second half for a 61-60 win in Morgantown, W.Va.
Freshman forward Juan Anderson, who grabbed three rebounds in a career-high 11 minutes due to the suspensions, said this year’s Golden Eagles are built to handle difficult times.
“That’s what we’re built on is beating adversity and being tough,” Anderson said. “We’re still a team, we’re all players and this is what we’re here for.”
Marquette has gone 17-5 since it lost its only player taller than 6-foot-8, junior center Chris Otule. The Golden Eagles are 6-1 since Davante Gardner sprained his left knee, and in the three games coach Buzz Williams has suspended at least one player, the Golden Eagles are 3-0, including a 61-54 win at then-No. 7 Wisconsin.
A primary reason Marquette has stayed balanced through this tumultuous season has been the play of Jae Crowder. Named Monday as the Big East Player of the Week for the second consecutive time, the 6-foot-6 senior forward has been nothing short of spectacular this season.
On Friday, Crowder was the only upperclassman available for the first half. Playing alongside sophomores Jamil Wilson and Jamail Jones, and freshmen Todd Mayo, Derrick Wilson and Anderson, Crowder scored nine of Marquette’s 21 first half points, and then responded with 17 more in the second half to lead the comeback.
Associate head coach Tony Benford said Crowder has taken the reins of being a senior leader.
“When you’re a senior, everything matters. It’s not just about making sure you’re ready to play, it’s about making sure the guys around you are ready to play,” Benford said. “Jae was getting those young guys to have confidence and say, ‘Hey, just follow my lead.’ And I think they did.”
The adverse conditions likely will continue when Marquette travels to Cincinnati on Wednesday. Gardner is listed as doubtful and not expected to play for the eighth straight game.
The Golden Eagles will miss Gardner’s presence inside against 6-foot-9 Yancy Gates, but the last time these two teams met, it was Marquette’s speed and intensity in its full court press defense that gave the Bearcats fits.
Marquette finished with 25 fast break points and scored 31 points off 18 Cincinnati turnovers in its 95-78 win.
Benford said those numbers, and Marquette’s overall defensive improvement, begin with guard play.
“I think all the guys have made a commitment to get better individually. That’s where it starts, on the perimeter,” Benford said. “We’re working on defense every day.”
The Bearcats, according to Benford, are a different team at home. Their early three-point shooting, successful transition offense and efficient dribble-drive half court offense make for a tough opponent. Cincinnati is 6-2 at home in the Big East, as opposed to just 4-4 on the road.
Johnson-Odom, who had 23 points in the last Cincinnati contest, said Wednesday’s game will be yet another difficult road matchup.
“We’re playing them at their home, and they’re a completely different team there,” Johnson-Odom said. “They’re a very confident and talented team when they play at home.”