Defined roles allow March focus to take center stage

The calendar won’t turn to March for another 18 days. Marquette will play eight times before heading to New York for the Big East Tournament and an eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. But the Golden Eagles’ self-proclaimed “March focus” has them in position to make an extended run that, earlier in the season, didn’t seem likely.

“We can have momentum going into March, and get a good seed and just play on from there,” Vander Blue, who scored 18 points in an 89-78 win over DePaul, said. “Right now we’ve been stressing ‘March focus.’ That means we just want to win and be locked into everything we do, no matter if it’s DePaul, Syracuse, anybody. Just be locked in and win.”

“If we’re gonna play past the second week of March,” Buzz Williams added, “we probably need to start thinking along those lines. And I think any time you can win in February, it’s really important heading into March.”

Marquette is honed in and playing as if its already in March. That happened because of defined roles.

Marquette is honed in and playing as if its already in March. That happened because of defined roles.

Four months ago many — Buzz Williams included — wouldn’t have expected this Marquette team to be focused on March, or playing like it, with almost half a Big East schedule to be played. There were more questions than answers, and roles needed to be defined before the focus turned to competing for championships.

But the Golden Eagles now have their leadership (Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan), their role players (Trent Lockett, Jamil Wilson, Chris Otule), their offensive sparks (Davante Gardner, Todd Mayo, Steve Taylor) and defensive stoppers (Juan Anderson, Derrick Wilson).

While these individual roles were more or less expected before the season began, it didn’t simply happen overnight. The results of each player’s efforts needed to mesh together and, helped by a superb coaching job from Williams, that’s finally happening.

All teams don’t shift their focus to March in February. Good teams do.

“You can see us trending in the right direction. And if you’re talking individually, I think you can see guys improving,” Williams said. “And if you’re specifically watching an individual you can see how they could help us even more.”

DePaul coach Oliver Purnell noted Marquette doesn’t have any stars. While it’s cliche — more so with Williams-led teams — the truth about this year’s team is that they are doing more with less. The only way Marquette was going to succeed was if each player found his role and stuck with it 40 minutes a night.

“They play really well together, particularly they’re sticky on the defensive end, they’re tough and they believe they are,” Purnell said. “I like this team. that’s for sure. I don’t necessarily think they’re the most talented team. I don’t think they’re Syracuse talented or Louisville. But they can beat ’em.”

Williams essentially had the same assessment, saying: “This team, you could easily point out their deficiencies in the roster. But they’ve been a lot of fun to coach because I think they play really hard and they’re very accepting of how we have to play.

“I don’t know if we’ll win another game, but our guys have been accountable, for the most part, nearly every day of their work,” he added.

Its true test will occur in the coming weeks, a stretch of play Williams called “an avalanche coming at us” that will include four ranked teams and five games on the road. Whether a run at the Big East championship is in the cards remains to be seen, but first place on Feb. 11 is first place on Feb. 11.

With Blue and Cadougan doing the heavy-lifting, Gardner excelling off the bench, Lockett and Otule jelling into specific roles and a cast of role players buying into Williams’ team concept, the attitude in the locker room has shifted.

“I think the sky’s the limit with this team. From top to bottom I think we have everything we need,” Blue said. “I just feel like we’re so close as a unit and have great leaders that can get us there.”

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