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Marquette: Who will bring back the defensive mojo?

Trent Lockett helped soften the Jae Crowder blow by providing stellar defense in 2012.

Trent Lockett helped soften the Jae Crowder blow by providing stellar defense in 2012.

When Buzz Williams secured a commitment from graduate transfer Trent Lockett in 2012, it appeared to be a match made in heaven. A strong defender with an efficient offensive skill set (think Jimmy Butler) was the quintessential player in Williams’ system, and the 13.3 points per game he averaged in his final two seasons at Arizona State would help soften the blow from losing Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom’s graduating 37 points per game.

It also filled a need; Crowder, an All-American, was gone, Juan Anderson was proving to be more of a defensive spell than actual role player and incoming freshman wing Jamal Ferguson wasn’t going to be ready to go in Year 1 (he transferred to North Carolina Central after appearing in just 14 games that season).

Lockett more than held his own in Marquette’s lineup, averaging 5.1 rebounds, grading out as the Golden Eagles’ best defender and turning in a pair of solid NCAA Tournament performances in wins over Butler and Miami. He appeared in all 35 games, earned Williams’ trust from the moment he stepped on campus in Milwaukee and, all things considered, was a stellar pick-up in Marquette’s eventual Big East championship and Elite Eight run.

Lockett never became the offensive force he was at Arizona State; his Offensive Win Shares (1.1) were equal to Chris Otule’s and he scored in double-figures just six times, and never scored more than 13 points in a game.

But that aforementioned defensive prowess wasn’t just good for that season, when Marquette ranked ninth in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom: It was the best defensive perimeter season in the Buzz Williams era. His 0.646 points-per-possession-against were better than Mo Acker’s and Wes Matthews’ senior seasons, opponents made just 25.2 percent from the field against him and he had a phenomenal 1.9 block percentage.

His defensive worth was both apparent and vital to his team’s success, especially after Jae Crowder (who would have won Defensive Player of the Year had he not been named Player of the Year) departed and left Marquette’s defense in question. And now Marquette finds itself in a similar situation.

[RELATED: Steve Wojciechowski’s perfect Marquette record]

Seven of Marquette’s players faced at least 90 defensive individual possessions a year ago. Of those, Jake Thomas (1st, 0.79 PPP), Jamil Wilson (3rd, 0.821), and Chris Otule (4th, 0.859) are now gone. As much as Marquette’s defense struggled a year ago (ranked 80th in defensive efficiency, its worst mark since 2005) the Golden Eagles are now losing three of their top four defenders.

The good news is Derrick Wilson and his all-Big East-caliber defense returns for a fourth season, and the Golden Eagles still have two wild-card defenders in Duane Wilson and center Luke Fischer, both of whom sat out in 2013-14. Last year’s carousel rotation also leaves hope that Jajuan Johnson and Steve Taylor also are better defenders than they let on in their inconsistent minutes; one can rightfully say both deserved more playing time, though it’s also a fact that both were major liabilities on defense.

So, who will bring back Marquette’s defensive mojo?

It likely won’t be transfer Matt Carlino, who ranked in the 33rd percentile in PPP-against last year, including one of the worst marks in the country on isolation possessions. The BYU graduate is going to earn his worth on offense and get by defensively, essentially a flip of what Lockett was two years ago. In fact, Carlino and Derrick Wilson will rotate much like Davante Gardner and Chris Otule did last year.

And for that reason, it’s not enough to expect Wilson to power the defense. He’s solid, but he won’t average the 30 minutes per game he played last year, and may not even reach the 26 minutes Lockett played in his only season in Milwaukee. He can only make so much of an impact heading the second unit. You won’t find an outlet more in Wilson’s corner than this one, but he’s not a complete enough player to build a defense around. Valuable? Yes. Lockett/Crowder-esque? Negative.

[MORE: 5 burning Q’s — MU offseason edition]

There’s optimism a rejuvenated Todd Mayo will find that defensive magic he showed in his freshman year. The coaching change in Milwaukee means more to Mayo than anyone else, and while there isn’t an advanced statistic or video clip to show it, motivation goes a long way on defense, and Mayo will have plenty of it under Steve Wojciechowski.

Mayo has the talent and conviction to get it done. But there’s someone else.

There are roughly 4,500 Division I basketball players. And of those, only one player in the country finished the season with a steal rate better than 5.0 and a block rate better than 4.0. That player was freshman Deonte Burton. The talented 6-foot-5 wing inexplicably played just 12.6 minutes per game, but he saw those minutes jump to 17.5 minutes in the last four games of the year, and responded with averages of 14.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.

First, here’s the skinny on Burton’s defensive season: He allowed 0.977 points per possession, which slotted him in the 21st percentile nationally. At times he found himself out of position and, as D-I-ready as his body was, he lacked the lateral movement and fundamentals to stay in front of his defenders and box out; his rebounding numbers were were just average, and he committed 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes.

It probably didn’t help, either, that Burton had the 69th highest usage rate in the country (not a typo). It’s a false narrative that players who work hard on offense can’t do as well defensively, but Burton truly did exert himself plenty on offense. There’s a chance Burton’s defense improves as he’s asked to do less on offense, which he certainly will from a usage standpoint.

And every aspect in which Burton struggled can be taught. Learning a defensive system, playing to scouting reports and understanding when a hand check is a foul and when it’s good defense comes in time. Case in point, Burton averaged 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes the last 10 games of the season, better than the 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes he averaged in his first 22 games.

You can teach fundamentals; what you can’t teach is Burton’s instinctive nature, his fearless persona and excellent length. He lacks a true position, though he primarily played on the wing as a “3” last year, but he’s the perfect build for a versatile defender who should improve as he finds more comfort in his second season.

No one should expect Burton to put up Lockett-type numbers, even in a best-case scenario. Lockett was an accomplished senior who had talent around him Burton won’t have. Still, losing three of its top-four defenders — including a wing in Jamil Wilson — necessitates someone stepping up for Marquette.

Plenty will be asked of Burton this season, and those last four games proved he can be a valuable asset putting the ball in the basket. Someone will need to do that, and more importantly someone will need to get Marquette back on track as a defensive juggernaut. It’ll be a team effort, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it start with Burton.

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