From last season to this season, Marquette looks like one of those bands that’s been on tour forever. By this point, they’ve only got a few core pieces left, but the product hasn’t changed and the success hasn’t waned.
They’ve moved on from Lazar Hayward. Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, and Wes Matthews are even longer gone. Jimmy Butler is the latest to leave the nest.
And through all that, coach Buzz Williams has his Golden Eagles at 6-0 and ranked 16th in the nation, with their first true challenge of the year coming Saturday night against in-state rival Wisconsin.
The offensive stats, so far this season, are gaudy for Marquette: top five in the nation in points per game, assists, and field goal percentage. But against who? Mount St. Mary’s, Winthrop, Ole Miss, Jacksonville, and Norfolk State (twice).
When the Golden Eagles take the floor against Wisconsin, it’ll be a different animal, all together.
The Badgers haven’t given up more than 57 points in a game this season, have held opponents below 43 five times, and, were it not for an 11-2 run down the stretch for North Carolina on Wednesday, could be sitting at 7-0. Against a team that slows the game down, like Wisconsin, patience and veteran experience could be key.
“We played with a bunch of young guys last year and to a large extent, we’re still young,” Williams said in a press conference Thursday. “We bring five guys off the bench that are all freshmen or sophomores. So we’re not necessarily an old team but we’re definitely older than we were last year.”
Despite seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder anchoring the scoring, they lost Butler to the NBA, seniors Dwight Buycks and Joseph Fulce to graduation, and Erik Williams and Reggie Smith to transfer.
That has forced Buzz Williams to rely on some underclassmen in supporting roles, including freshman guard Todd Mayo and sophomore guard Vander Blue.
“Going into our first big test against Wisconsin, I feel like we’re ready. I think we’re definitely ahead of where we were last year going into this game,” said Crowder. “We take the rivalry part out of it. I know I do. I don’t focus on the rivalry as much…but it’s a big game for us to set the tone going into the Big East season.”
In Wisconsin’s narrow loss to North Carolina, the Badgers rarely took a shot with more than 10 seconds on the shot clock, while forcing 14 Tar Heel turnovers and only turning it over, themselves, four times.
Against lesser teams, Marquette has used the turnover as a catalyst for a transition offense, forcing 19 versus Ole Miss and a whopping 27 against Mount St. Mary’s. With the frustratingly slow pace that Wisconsin will settle into, Marquette will have to resist the urge to force the issue and turn it over, which will play right into the Badgers’ hands.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to tell [the younger players] anything to try and get them riled up,” said Johnson-Odom. “The first thing I would say is it’s a game, like the rest of the games.”