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The truth about Marquette after Thursday night

Buzz Williams warned everyone something like this may happen.

From the moment he stood at the podium fielding questions on media day in October, up until postgame press conferences following Marquette’s win over UMBC on Monday, Williams hinted at his Marquette team not being ready for a game like Thursday night, which turned out to be the worst loss since he took over as Marquette’s head coach, an 82-49 loss at No. 7 Florida.

He didn’t say it specifically, never mentioning Florida or Billy Donovan or traveling to Gainesville, where the Gators were 28-5 the last two seasons. But leading up to the Carrier Classic, Williams noted that wind would not be an issue because “we don’t have anybody who can shoot,” and even going so far to say “we’re not very good.” After covering Williams’ team for four seasons, it’s easy to get a chuckle out of Williams’ exaggerations,  which come free of charge along with his insight of the game and exact knowledge of his team.

But after Thursday night’s shellacking — one where Marquette trailed by 16 in the first half, didn’t score in the second half until the 15:09 mark and failed to score 50 points for the first time since the 2007 NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State — it’s apparent that, on Nov. 30, Williams’ comments are true.

With apologies to Butler, Florida marked the Golden Eagles’ first real test of the season. A win would have been a long shot, as Marquette entered as a 10-point underdog against one of 25 undefeated teams left in the country. But if Marquette is applauded every time it keeps itself in a tightly contested game it has no real business being in (at West Va. last year, 2011 at UConn, 2010 vs. Duke), it’s only fair to dole out criticism in the rare occurrence they fall flat and are out of a game by halftime.

It’s a testament to Williams that his ball clubs have lost by double-digits just nine times the last three seasons, but it’s apparent the team is still looking for its identity. The good news is that it’s November, and Marquette has at least 24 games left on its schedule to right the ship. There’s no use in getting worked up about a road loss to a top-10 team in the season’s first month, but the way they lost it (whether it had been a 5-point game or a 33-point game) shows the glaring weakness for a leader still needing to step up when the going gets tough.

We don’t see the team behind closed doors in practices, we’re not in the huddle when they need a basket and we’re not in the locker room after games. It’s possible, even likely, that there is a true leader, but it didn’t show on the court Thursday, just like it didn’t show in the closing minutes of the Butler loss. Aki Collins, while still an assistant on Williams’ staff last summer, said this year’s team would need more time to find its leaders, much like 2010-2011’s team with Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks.

Buzz Williams knew early struggles would happen. It's no reason to panic. (US Presswire)

Buzz Williams knew early struggles would happen. It’s no reason to panic. (US Presswire)

“Are there gonna be moments in time when there’s gonna be a void? I think all teams have that unless you have a super-personality, and I don’t know if this group has a super-personality,” Collins said. “But it’s amazing how quickly kids can adapt. Maybe somebody emerges that we weren’t expecting to emerge. It only takes one guy to take hold of the team. If not, it has to be a collective deal.”

Collins said that team didn’t find its true leadership until “the eleventh hour” when they reeled off two wins in the Big East Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament, where they then advanced to the Sweet 16. Perhaps that will be the case for this year’s team.

Another comment that foreshadowed potential issues early for Marquette was a subtle comment Williams made Monday, saying he liked Marquette’s size in the starting lineup but wished he had another ball-handler on the court at times.

When Williams made his comments about the team not being “very good,” he spoke about a team that no longer had the services of Todd Mayo or T.J. Taylor. Neither player was expected to start, but the quality off the bench took a serious hit with the loss of those two players, and Jake Thomas and Jamal Ferguson have not yet been able to fill that void.

Vander Blue has stepped up as a true go-to threat, and after tonight’s 20-point performance it’s no longer a surprise when he fills the scoring load. But not even Darius Johnson-Odom, a first team All-Big East selection, could do it on his own. He needed the complement of Blue and Mayo last year, and it’s apparent Marquette doesn’t have that right now, something Williams knew and admitted before Ohio State. Said in jest, perhaps, but founded in truth he understood.

With the likelihood increasing that Mayo returns for the second semester, and the inevitability of Junior Cadougan improving on his brutal start to the season, the Marquette backcourt is going to improve its production. It’s a Buzz Williams team. Guards won’t be a concern.

Then there’s Jamil Wilson, who just about everyone inside Marquette agrees can be an All-Big East member if he develops a killer instinct. He showed it against Southern Cal and against UMBC, but his consistency needs improving. Someone needs to step up when Davante Gardner is limited, and Wilson is the candidate to do so. But like everyone, he’s molding himself into a new role. It may or may not happen, but just because it hasn’t happened yet is not cause for major concern.

There’s a reason Williams made a point at media day in October to say that he would know more about his team after Christmas than after Thanksgiving. The general thought was that a hectic schedule that included games against No. 4 Ohio State, Butler, (potentially) No. 11 North Carolina, No. 7 Florida and Wisconsin in less than a month wouldn’t be a true gauge of where the team was.

But it’s becoming apparent that, more so than the opponents overshadowing Marquette’s talent, Williams was talking about his own team’s internal growth. He has an experienced group, but even the juniors and seniors had the luxury of relying on Butler and Buycks in 2010 and Jae Crowder and Johnson-Odom in 2011. Few teams in the country, if any, have relied more on its senior leadership the last four years than Marquette. The 2010 team had relied on the Three Amigos and Lazar Hayward, two sets of perhaps the best leaders in Marquette’s storied history.

Zero NCAA Tournament berths are handed out in November, and taking a page from Williams’ book of quotes, there weren’t any members of the Selection Committee in the Gainesville stands on Thursday. Granted Williams uses that analogy after Marquette wins, but it applies the other way, too, after bad losses.

Williams has never been one for excuses, and he’s been brutally honest about this year’s team. Thursday’s loss was not just another loss, as Williams called it the worst in his 179-game career. It proved Marquette still needs leadership and may not have “the guy” to recover from early deficits…right now. There’s time.

But Thursday wasn’t necessarily a preview of what’s to come the next three months either. It’s what Marquette currently is, and what Williams knew all along. But if the last four years have taught anything about Williams’ teams, it’s that he can adapt to the roster he’s given and make it successful.

That will again be the case in 2012-13, 33-point loss at Florida or not.

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One Comment on “The truth about Marquette after Thursday night”

  1. Chris Columbo
    December 1, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    The team needs to play a settled offense with a starting line up of Otule Gardner and Jamil Wilson in the front line. Derrick Wilson and Vander Blue. Cadougan comes off the bench and plays limited minutes as a spark plug but definitely not in the game at the end. Juan Anderson and Turner are also situation substitutes. I think that lineup will get the ball in Gardners hands more often which should lead to easy baskets for Otule and open looks for Wilson. Derrick Wilson is much more in control of his game than Cadougan will ever be and plays well with Vander.

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