Small-ball lineup has Marquette offense showing signs of life

Jajuan Johnson and the Marquette guards were excellent late in Monday night's loss at Arizona State. (USA Today)

Jajuan Johnson and the Marquette guards were excellent late in Monday night’s loss at Arizona State. (USA Today)

The final score Monday night in Tempe, Ari., showed a Marquette loss, but the Golden Eagles had plenty of individual wins in their 79-77 defeat, including what looks to be a clearer example of a rotation that had little stability through four games.

Even playing without leading scorer Todd Mayo, Buzz Williams deployed a three-guard lineup much of the evening, and it paid dividends thanks to the hot shooting of Jake Thomas, the fearless play of freshman Jajuan Johnson and Derrick Wilson’s breakout game.

In particular, Williams went to a three-guard offense at the 17:10 mark of the second half, substituting Derrick Wilson in for Juan Anderson, having the backcourt consist of Wilson, Jake Thomas and Jajuan Johnson.

Williams stayed with that three-guard offense until the final 27 seconds, when he brought in Otule for Johnson on the game’s final two possessions — Johnson went in for Jamil Wilson when the latter fouled out.

But it was that 16-minute, 43-second span that Marquette may have found its best offensive layout.

In that time, the Golden Eagles’ outscored the Sun Devils, 37-30, bringing Marquette within a point (78-77) after trailing by eight (48-40) when the substitutions were made.

Williams stayed with Wilson, Thomas and Johnson for all but three minutes of that stretch, only bringing in freshman wing Deonte Burton (included as a “guard” for all intents and purpose) for Johnson midway through the half.

In the frontcourt Williams went with a combination of Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, foul-plauged Jamil Wilson and, for a few spurts, Juan Anderson.

In 29 possessions the three-guard lineup shot 14-of-29 (48.3 percent), committed just one turnover and held the Sun Devils to 1-of-7 shooting in the final three minutes of the contest.

And while more in-depth analysis may be required to determine whether Williams was playing off Herb Sendek’s lineup changes, the Marquette trio of guards’ play may have Williams reconsidering his rotation.

In the preseason it was true that Marquette’s frontcourt was its strong suit. While that hasn’t changed, Steve Taylor’s struggles defensively, Anderson’s limitations as an impact player and the absence of transferred forward Jameel McKay (yes, it’s still relevant) may mean that Williams and the Golden Eagles are better served rotating their bigs (Wilson at power forward and a combination of Otule and Gardner, with OxTule entering when Wilson is in foul trouble) while running a three-guard offense.

Remember that Mayo was sidelined with an ankle sprain, so it’s possible that Marquette could have any two-man combination of Mayo, Thomas, Johnson and eventually Duane Wilson running with Derrick Wilson, who scored 14 points and handed out seven assists to zero turnovers.

Williams' best lineup may be Derrick Wilson and a two-man combo of Thomas, Johnson and Mayo. (USA Today)

Williams’ best lineup may be Derrick Wilson and a two-man combo of Thomas, Johnson and Mayo. (USA Today)

 

In fact, six of Wilson’s seven helpers came during this stretch, with three guards on the court. Surely Thomas’ hot shooting helped — Wilson had assists on three of Thomas’ 3-pointers — but Marquette’s point guard also had assists to Jamil Wilson, Burton and Gardner during that stretch. Perhaps the key to Wilson’s successes are in having more slashers on the outside and freeing up the inside some.

It worked Monday, and it’s also been a positive as a whole early in the season.

Williams used a three-guard lineup with Derrick Wilson at the point for 8:26 against New Hampshire, and in that span Marquette was +5 (11-6) and shot 3-of-6 from the field, with Wilson picking up one of his two assists.

Against Ohio State, Williams ran the same setup for 15:58, and Marquette tied Ohio State, 19-19, and went 5-of-20 from the field — that 25 percent mark was better than the 5-of-33 (15.1 percent) the Golden Eagles shot in a “bigger” lineup, where they were outscored 33-16.

In the blowout win against Grambling State (that was a fun one), Derrick Wilson led a three-guard offense for 9:39. In that time, Marquette only outscored its opponent 22-19 and was 8-of-15 (53.3 percent) from the field, so improvements clearly have been made.

In the opener, Williams used the lineup for 15:30, was actually outscored 33-24 and shot just 5-of-13.

From these numbers, it’s apparent the three-guard offense has taken some time to get used to. Surely Derrick Wilson’s and Thomas’ improved numbers helped, but it appears the time has come that it’s time to begin using it more often.

Taking the last three games into account, Marquette has used the Wilson-three-guard offense for 47:58, outscored its opponents 76-69 (+7) and shot 38.4 percent from the field (25-of-65).

In all other instances, 72:02 game time, the Golden Eagles have been outscored 94-115 and shot 27.5 percent from the field (30-of-109).

It’s only a small sample size, and factors such as defense, calling Burton a “guard” within the offense and opponents’ lineups must be taken into account, but at least on Monday night the usually stagnant Marquette offense got a boost thanks to a three-guard lineup. Perhaps the “bigger” Golden Eagles might start looking “smaller” going forward.

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