Steve Taylor’s sophomore season began as nothing short of a nightmare. He was riding the momentum of a strong end to his freshman season, going 12-for-23 and grabbing 27 rebounds in his final seven regular season games, showing off the size, versatility and bounce that made him a consensus top-100 2013 recruit and three-time state champion at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago.
He played sparingly in the NCAA Tournament – 12 minutes in four games – as Buzz Williams opted for his seniors and more experienced players who had gone to the Sweet 16 a year ago. There were questions about what his role would be as a sophomore, with three seniors ahead of him and incoming two-time All-American junior college forward Jameel McKay entering the fold.
So it made sense for Taylor to undergo surgery on his right knee to remove a benign growth that had existed for multiple years, perhaps slowing him down in his first year of collegiate basketball. He was expected to miss multiple months, and like any player recovering from his first major surgery, Taylor was slow to recover, telling Paint Touches in August that he was more than a month behind schedule due to muscle atrophy in his right quadriceps muscle. Still, he had hoped to be back as a full participant by the time Marquette University began classes on Aug. 25.
It was thought of as good news that Taylor participated in the Marquette Madness scrimmage, logging 28 minutes in what would otherwise be considered a meaningless game. Certainly Williams wouldn’t have allowed his 6-foot-8 project to play if the knee (or muscles) had been a concern.
But those issues flared up, both literally and figuratively, toward the end of 2013. Marquette seemingly was quiet on that front, as Taylor dealt with minor setbacks to his knee and quad (and hamstring) that limited him to just 28 minutes in five games and seven DNP’s. The injury clearly was bothering him, as he played just 4, 3 and 5 minutes, respectively, in the last three games he played in during that stretch.
That final stretch included sitting all 40 minutes against Seton Hall and all 45 minutes against Butler, but those two games seem to have served him incredibly well, and it appears Taylor is coming around to the player Williams and Marquette knew he was when they recruited him over the likes of DePaul, Missouri and Memphis.
In his last two games, Taylor has totaled 46 minutes, equaling the amount of minutes he played from Nov. 28 to Dec. 18. And he’s been effective, too. Taylor has shot 9-for-21, scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds; not numbers that would blow anyone away, but sound for a player just now coming around after essentially sitting and rehabbing for an entire month.
Williams and Marquette lost Vander Blue a month after the season ended, McKay a week into practice, and Duane Wilson shortly after, resulting in the talented freshman redshirting. Part of the Golden Eagles’ struggles surely have come due to Williams playing with not only a short bench, but a roster that didn’t look anything like it did when we wrote it down in April. Taylor was another loss, but pending another setback or injury, he’s added perhaps his most versatile offensive threat.
In his two games back, Taylor has faced a zone (Georgetown) and man-to-man (Villanova), giving us a small-yet-full sample size with which to work.
He’s shot 43 percent in each, taking a team-high 14 attempts in an overtime win over Georgetown and seven more against Villanova. He added an impressive blend of jump shots, post-ups, flashes, hook shots, cuts to the basket and even a 3-pointer (that missed badly). Really, go back and watch; in 46 minutes he attempted eight or nine different shots, all the while never forcing a shot and admittedly missing a few bunnies.
It was also interesting to note that he acted as Marquette’s trailer against Georgetown while Jamil Wilson was in the game. It’s probably looking too far into the situation, as Wilson is a better perimeter player and ball handler, but in that game it was Taylor who trailed, who played the Lazar-Hayward role in the middle of the Hoyas’ zone and who got the first look at the basket on most possessions, as the Marquette guards (and Wilson) did a great job getting the ball inside. Williams was riding the hot hand, yet he also was allowing Taylor to get his feet wet in a close, must-win game.
Last year Taylor made his money on the offensive glass; he scored 29 points on 22 offensive rebounds, with his 1.318 points per possession ranking in the 88th percentile nationally. In his last two games he has already grabbed five offensive rebounds, though he missed all four of his putbacks on those boards (that also means he’s shooting 9-for-17 on non-offensive rebound possessions, a stellar 53 percent mark).
His elusiveness inside will continue to be the focal point of his game as he works back into the rotation. He’s played primarily with Wilson and Davante Gardner in the frontcourt with him, meaning offensive rebounds will be available with defenses focusing in on Marquette’s two leading scorers. Williams is playing his cards right, and Taylor is making him look smart.
The Golden Eagles have work to do. They have 12 regular season games and at least one Big East Tournament game left on the schedule, and likely need to win 10 of those to have a shot at March Madness. Taylor can’t do it all by himself, even in a best-case scenario, but his addition to Williams’ rotation has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster. And THAT could be a difference maker. At the very least, a healthy Steve Taylor is great news for Marquette and its struggling offense, and he’s looking more like a player who will thrive as a switchable under Williams for the next few years.