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Marquette preseason primer: Bigs

Chris Otule is a crucial part of Marquette's defense...and now its offense. (USA Today)

Chris Otule is a crucial part of Marquette’s defense…and now its offense. (USA Today)

Marquette is officially in game week, which means we’ll  be previewing this year’s roster and schedule throughout the week up until Friday night’s game against Southern. Today we look at Marquette’s bigs and finally the non-conference schedule. On Friday we’ll make our predictions for the 2013-14 Golden Eagles.

Monday: Guards
Tuesday: Wings
Wednesday: Forwards/centers
Thursday: Non-conference schedule
Friday: Predictions

The collective jaw-drop from the Marquette faithful was warranted when Lazar Hayward measured in at 6-foot-4.5 at the NBA Combine three years ago. Here was a small forward at best, who all season long played center for the Golden Eagles while leading his team to 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament bid. It was remarkable to consider a player who was a smidgen taller than Vander Blue guarded the likes of Rick Jackson and Greg Monroe in Big East contests.

Fast forward to today and Marquette will tout a 6-foot-11 center and a pair of 6-foot-8 power forwards in the post when it begins its season in a mere two days. It’s quite the accomplishment for Buzz Williams, who has transformed a program known for its guards into a well-balanced roster that will rely on its frontcourt presence this season.

At the top of the class is senior Davante Gardner. Everyone in the Marquette program agrees that the Ox’s skill set is unlike any they’ve ever played with or against at any level. And after progressing on the court and losing weight off it for three seasons, he has finally reached his peak conditioning level and is playing his best basketball. He’s down to 283 pounds and looks fantastic, meaning he could reach close to 25 minutes per game, up from 21.5 minutes as a senior.

It’s hard to project the numbers Gardner will put up because we don’t know how often Williams will use Gardner; part of what makes him so special is that he’s often fresh when he enters the game. But if he’s able to keep up his per-40 minute numbers while playing upwards of those aforementioned 25 minutes, he will be an all-Big East performer.

And the main reason we don’t know what kind of role Gardner will play — we know it will be an important one — is the return of Chris Otule, who is back for a sixth and final season. Both he and Gardner said the two will be on the court together “a lot,” which would make the Marquette frontcourt one of the biggest in the country.

It was once thought that Otule’s role would always be the same: start the game to win the opening tip, play suffocating defense and add the occasional putback offensive rebound-and-dunk. But then he slammed home a basket against Louisville on Feb. 3 and went on an absolute tear, making 29-of-33 shots in nine games, culminating in an 8-for-8 performance against Notre Dame.

In the first 19 games of the year he averaged 5.1 points on 2.9 shot attempts per game. But beginning with that Louisville game until the rest of the season, he averaged 6.3 points (all against Big East and NCAA opponents, nonetheless) on 4.3 field-goal attempts per game. He really became an offensive contributor and one who will see ample time with the ball in the post, granted he can stay healthy.

Filling in for those two is sophomore standout Steve Taylor. The sophomore showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman (see: at Rutgers) and though knee surgery set him back over the summer, he should enter this season fully healthy and ready for a potential breakout year. Those his real minutes will come next year, Jameel McKay’s departure means more will be expected of the Chicago native.

He was an absolute monster on the offensive glass and showed the ability to shoot from 15 feet out, making him a versatile threat that Marquette can use as a wing in larger lineups and potentially a center when the Golden Eagles want to run. Though Jamil Wilson will see time inside, too, Taylor must perform to allow Marquette depth behind centers Otule and Gardner.

In all, this is the Golden Eagles’ deepest and most talented area. Put Jamil Wilson in this section instead of the wings and you have perhaps Marquette’s two best players and most dominant defender. Expect the ball to find the post on just about every possession; that’s nothing new, but the fact that it will stay there more times than it won’t is something new that Williams must master to make the offense go.

PROJECTED LINEUP

PG: Derrick Wilson, Duane Wilson, Todd Mayo, John Dawson
SG: Jajuan Johnson, Todd Mayo, Jake Thomas, Juan Anderson
SF: Juan Anderson, Jamil Wilson, Deonte Burton
PF: Jamil Wilson, Davante Gardner, Steve Taylor
C: Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, Steve Taylor, Jamil Wilson

STAT TO KNOW

Steve Taylor was super-efficient inside in his freshman season. In an analysis we did in February, we showed that Taylor had grabbed 19 rebounds, converting 12 for made field goals, two for missed shots, two for turnovers and was fouled on the final two. Also, Taylor made a whopping 75 percent of his field-goal attempts at the rim, where he took 46 percent of his shots. Expect him to see more baskets inside, while also shooting the occasional 15-footer at the free-throw line when Marquette sees 2-3 zone (the Lazar/Jae jumper).

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK

Davante Gardner is a good, borderline great player. But his ceiling is always going to be how many minutes he can play. If he matches his numbers from a year ago Marquette will be in great position; however, if he can move up to 25-27 minutes per game while keeping his remarkable efficiency, Marquette becomes a real contender in March and Gardner could be looking at All-American votes by season’s end.

ONE WORD, ONE SENTENCE

Davante Gardner: Minutes — If Gardner can see an uptick in minutes at his 283-pound body, Gardner could put up some incredible numbers as a senior.

Chris Otule: Veteran — The sixth-year senior has been around since Buzz Williams arrived, so he knows the ins and outs, which will pay dividends as one of the key leaders on this year’s team.

Steve Taylor: Boards — What Taylor must do on the second unit is rebound the ball to create scoring opportunities on the offensive end.

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