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Buzz Williams must search, wait for his special team

Buzz Williams has an important task this season. (USA Today)

Buzz Williams has an important task this season. (USA Today)

Usually when Buzz Williams says he’s worried about one of his teams, it’s easy to write off his comments as coach-speak. After all, his resume of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, at least 22 wins in each season and, most recently, an Elite Eight berth, speaks for itself. The Golden Eagles will be a perennial contender in the Big East — especially the new one — and will hear their name called on Selection Sunday as long as they take care of business early in the season and compete in-conference.

This year’s team is no different; a strong frontcourt, talent in the backcourt and, most important, Williams at the helm means the Golden Eagles are set for their ninth straight March Madness and 20+ wins. But when Williams says he has “no idea” who will start, and when he says that leaders haven’t stepped up early the way he had expected them to, there’s some cause for concern.

There’s question marks on every team, what with players leaving every season, transfers occurring and not knowing how much 19- and 20-year-old athletes are going to progress until the season actually begins. And until Marquette answers questions in its backcourt, it’s difficult to know exactly where it stands among the NCAA’s best.

[MORE — Marquette preseason primer: Wings]

Clearly voters in both the AP and Coaches polls believe the Golden Eagles are ready to compete — they begin the season ranked No. 17 in both. Returning stars Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson, as well as season role players in Chris Otule, Todd Mayo and Derrick Wilson mean there are players who will be able to weather the storm during rough patches, much like Vander Blue, Trent Lockett and Junior Cadougan did last year after a 33-point loss at Florida, or an ugly loss at Green Bay in which the team scored just 47 points. The Golden Eagles didn’t lose two games in a row all season long for the first time under Williams, and as he’s progressed as a coach and team leaders understand their roles, there’s a good chance that doesn’t happen again in 2013-14.

But where do role players fit in? A four-man recruiting class arguably will average more minutes per game this season than any group of freshmen under Williams — the 2010 class may maintain that honor, though — have, and as of today it’s not clear where any of those players fit in.

Shooting guard Jajuan Johnson, Williams’ highest ranked recruit since taking over at Marquette, will play an important role. He’s a true scorer, has good length on defense and seems to have gotten past the freshman wall in terms of having confidence on the court to play his game. Williams has spoken more highly of Johnson than any other first-year player in his tenure at Marquette, and if there’s one thing Williams likes more than talent, it’s effort.

John Dawson seems to be more of a project at this point, but the left-leg stress fracture fellow guard Duane Wilson suffered last month may speed up Dawson’s timetable and increase his role. “Athlete” Deonte Burton — don’t even try to figure out his position; he can do a bit of everything — is still raw in talent, but Jameel McKay’s departure bumps him up one spot in the rotation. Duane Wilson will have a role when he returns, though we saw what Juan Anderson’s early injuries did to his freshman progression. At this point the Milwaukee native is a wild card.

[MORE — Marquette preseason primer: Big men]

Derrick Wilson doesn’t get enough credit for his stellar efficiency, though even he admitted he’ll need to be more of a scorer as the starting point guard. His career-high in points is six, and he’s never scored more than four points in a conference game. In fact, he’s never taken more than five shots in any game; this season Marquette will need the junior to average close to five shots per game. That’s a lot to ask, but there’s optimism around the team that Wilson is a player who can improve in an expanded role.

The Golden Eagles defied odds last season, making it to the Elite Eight despite horrendous 3-point shooting and a marginal effective field-goal percentage. Part of that was inside dominance, though the other part was alums Blue, Cadougan and Lockett getting into the lane and to the basket for easy scores. The forwards and centers can do as much damage as they want, but there has to be some sort of output from guards and wings getting to the basket.

And right now, the only proven attacker is Todd Mayo. Saying his two-year career has been a roller coaster would be putting it lightly, seeing as he’s been suspended, injured and benched, all before his junior season. He’s an upperclassman now, and seems to have put his troubles behind him. Even if Johnson explodes as a freshman and Derrick Wilson becomes more of a scorer, Mayo needs to be “that guy,” the one who can take over a game from the outside and swing momentum defensively. Bigs are nice; guards win games in college basketball. Perhaps Jake Thomas will come out of his shell and show more confidence on the court. For now, he’s a plug-and-play.

In the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes, Williams went hard after Juan Anderson and Steve Taylor, respectively, for good reason. They’re typical Marquette players, banging inside, showing versatility inside and out and outworking opponents on a daily basis. Excuse the cliches — they’re mighty talented, too — but these glue guys will be crucial to spelling Gardner, Otule and Wilson inside. Their production is unknown since they’ve never been in expanded roles, making them optimistic question marks. Anderson has never had a healthy season until now, and Taylor is still working his way into the Marquette structure. Both will be key.

[MORE — Marquette preseason primer: Guards]

Marquette is what it is this year. It’d be great to have more proven scoring depth in the backcourt, and knowing Derrick Wilson was going to replace Junior Cadougan numbers-wise would be a load off Williams’ mind. Even with a best-case scenario in mind, however, the Golden Eagles will go as far as the men in the middle go.

Last year Marquette was one of the most efficient teams in the country in post-up situations, and returning three seniors who did the lion’s share of that work is exciting. Gardner, Jamil Wilson, and to an extent Otule will help mask the Golden Eagles’ expected backcourt struggles in the early going. In 2010 Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler did a solid job while David Cubillan made a transition to point guard and junior-college transfers Dwight Buycks and Darius Johnson-Odom made the transition to Division I game speed.

Expectations are high for Wilson, who must continue to excel from beyond the arc while manning the paint on occasion to give Gardner and Otule a rest. Part of what makes “OxTule” special is that they do their damage in short spurts; they aren’t high-volume box-score fillers, and it only makes a difference in the win/loss column if they have others around them filling in the holes. If Wilson can make the “jump” — think Blue, Jae Crowder, Wesley Matthews — watch out.

Marquette will win 20+ games this season. It will go the NCAA Tournament once again and, barring injury, will compete for a Big East championship. But there are are more question marks than usual with this team. The one constant is Williams, a head coach who has adapted to his roster as well as any coach in the country on an annual basis. Fast or slow, inside- or outside-oriented, vocal or quiet, Williams has a pulse on his team and can gameplan accordingly. One of Williams’ favorite lines is knowing more about his team around Christmas than Halloween, and in no year has that statement been more true than now.

There’s a special team somewhere in the Marquette locker room. Williams just has to find it.

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