Marquette officially kicks off its 2012-13 season on Friday, and while plenty of talent returns from a team that won 27 games and made a Sweet 16 performance. But there are question marks that must be answered if Buzz Williams plans to not lose a beat from the momentum his program has built the last four seasons.
1. Who will step into a star role in place of the departed seniors?
Marquette lost more than 40 percent of its scoring in seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, and someone has to replace it. Buzz Williams has four players — Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson, Todd Mayo and Vander Blue — who were nice role players on last year’s Sweet 16 team, and the addition of Trent Lockett gives him a fifth. One (or more) of those five needs to become an All-Big East-caliber player. Each of those five players have something that held them back last year, so who steps up as Marquette’s go-to player will be something to watch. Lockett, Wilson and Gardner have the best chances, but someone needs to.
2. Who is this year’s leader?
The good news is that six of Marquette’s eight best players are back; the issue is that the two gone, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, were the unquestioned leaders. And while the last four years Marquette had seniors who took the reins without question, Junior Cadougan and Chris Otule don’t scream “vocal leader.” Like it was two years ago, there will be an acclimation to the role. The hope is that someone takes the initiative in Boot Camp like Jimmy Butler did in 2010, but the fact remains that there are too many Indians and not enough chiefs. That’s not necessarily a problem, because there is room for someone to grow into the role…it just may not happen right away.
3. Who will score on the perimeter?
Marquette won’t match the 201 3-pointers it made last year, and more than 68 percent of those are gone in Crowder and Johnson-Odom. Buzz Williams’ teams have relied less on 3-pointers each year (ranked 63rd, 22nd, 192nd and 160th in the country in 3-point makes the last four years), but just 63 total 3-point makes return, plus 21 in Trent Lockett, but while the front court is as good as it’s been in five years, there needs to be a balance. Expanded roles for Todd Mayo and Jamil Wilson will help, but perimeter shooting is Marquette’s most glaring need. An X-factor is Steve Taylor, who has a well-rounded inside-out game that could come in handy.
4. Is Trent Lockett a nice player or a program-changer?
Marquette’s biggest acquisition was Trent Lockett, a graduate student who averaged 13.0 points and 5.8 rebounds as a junior for Arizona State. His background story is known, but what isn’t is how he’ll adjust to a brand new system, an up-tempo pace and a leadership role. Buzz Williams needs his seniors, and though Lockett is new he’s no exception. He should enter a similar role to that of Jimmy Butler, who spent most of his year playing from inside 15-feet, getting to the free throw line and playing lock-down defense. Williams brought him in Lockett to provide leadership and a scoring presence, but whether that translates into a program changer will be easily seen.
5. Can Vander Blue make “the jump” with his jumper?
Offseason reports out of Milwaukee said Vander Blue has made significant improvement with his jump shot. But to be fair, the same was said about Jamail Jones a year ago. Blue has an above-average-or-better check mark next to every part of his game except his jump shot. He’s a two-guard who has made 12-of-56 3-pointers in his two seasons at Marquette. With his quickness and court vision, defenders are learning not to guard Blue on the perimeter, almost baiting him to shoot from outside. He’s as hard a worker as there is on the roster and his confidence is sky-high from an impressive end to last season, but he needs to improve his jump shot if he intends on taking the next step as a player.
6. How effective can Chris Otule be on a surgically repaired knee?
Fifth-year senior Chris Otule was on the verge of a career year before a torn ACL ended his season just eight games in. He suffered the injury 10 months ago, and had surgery on Jan. 10. That puts him nine months out of surgery on a leg needing to support 275 pounds of weight and cutting on a 6-foot-11 body. Marquette showed last year they can be effective without his services, but he’s a vital part of the interior with Jae Crowder gone. More will be known next week on Otule’s status, but his minutes will be something to track all year long. If he can go full contact, it frees up Jamil Wilson and Steve Taylor to play their more natural, face-up forward position instead of makeshift center.
7. How many minutes can Davante Gardner log?
Marquette needs scoring in 2012, and no one supplies it in more efficient form than Davante Gardner. He’s Marquette most talented offensive player, draws fouls and held his own defensively late in the season. The issue is, at his weight, is how many minutes per game he can realistically average. He played 19.5 minutes per game last year, but to truly reach his full potential he needs to average somewhere near 25 minutes per game. Is that possible? His knee is fully healthy, but conditioning is an issue until he proves it isn’t. Despite a talented front court, Marquette needs Gardner to be in peak condition or he’ll just be a talented role player, which could spell doom for the Marquette offense.
8. Is Jake Thomas simply a walk-on, or will he contribute?
The 3-point line in the Big East is the same distance in the Big East as it was in the Great West Conference, where Jake Thomas played for two seasons. That’s good news, because Thomas’ range, as witnessed at South Dakota, could come in handy on a team with very few reliable outside shooters. The question, however, is whether or not Thomas’ role will be as a spark off the bench or as a rotation player. He has the size, and he’s been practicing with Division-I athletes for more than a year now, but he’ll need to prove he can keep up with the pace of Big East basketball. An early guess is he falls somewhere in between.
9. Steve Taylor: Instant contributor or freshman with potential?
Tony Benford, the lead recruiter for the Simeon power forward, was giddy about Steve Taylor’s star potential earlier this year. Benford is gone, but Taylor remains a potential impact freshman with a skill set perfect for Buzz Williams’ offense. He has the height, but the question of whether he has the size to bang in the Big East 15+ minutes a night. He dominated at the Milwaukee Pro-Am, albeit with the help of Junior Cadougan, but then again he’ll have the senior point guard to work with in 2012. Marquette has talented front court forwards in Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson, but if Taylor is an instant contributor it makes the Golden Eagles even more dangerous inside.
10. How much improvement will Juan Anderson show in Year 2?
An injury during individual workouts in the offseason, a suspension to begin the season and a shoulder injury at the midway point limited Juan Anderson to 24 games his freshman year. The talent is there for the once-top-60 recruit, but he had shoulder surgery this offseason and is just getting back on the court. He’s behind, and he’ll have to prove he’s both recovered from injury and showing improvement or it could be another lost year with serious talent coming in at his position next year.