GROVER: Early excitement from Golden Eagles

EricGroverWasn’t this supposed to be a rebuilding year?

For two and a half games, the Marquette Golden Eagles — a team that returned just one starter, was picked to finish 12th in the Big East this year and is short on depth (and height) all over the floor — ran over everyone in the Milk House at the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., this weekend. Then they ran out of gas.

It would’ve been nice to add some hardware to the trophy case, but let’s stay positive. This team outperformed everyone’s expectations this weekend. Honestly, who saw Marquette getting to the championship game?  Put your hands down, liars. I was uncomfortable about the team playing Xavier.

But Xavier turned out to be just the beginning. In addition to a double-digit win over the Musketeers, the Golden Eagles dismantled No. 15 Michigan, 79-65. And you know what they did next? They went to Disney World! (Seriously. It was literally right there.)

Yes, Marquette blew a huge second-half lead against Florida State, and in the end that’s what people will remember. But if you look at it closely, the team played three games in four days with a rotation of just eight players. The Golden Eagles were destroying the Seminoles by 17 when all of a sudden the free throws were hitting the front of the rim, the passing got sloppy and the turnovers mounted.

This is an endurance issue and I don’t see it becoming a big deal over the entire season. But if coach Buzz Williams keeps this short rotation, I would expect Marquette to face similar difficulties in the Big East Tournament. However, the Golden Eagles have significant breathers in between the rest of their games, save for a one-day break between Presbyterian on Dec. 27 and opening the conference schedule with a showdown in Morgantown, W.Va., with No. 8 West Virginia on Dec. 29. That game will be difficult enough to begin with.

So, how did the Golden Eagles plunder two wins out of the Milk House? They did it as a team.

The defense they displayed over the weekend was extremely impressive. They were everywhere, like the paparazzi outside Tiger Woods’ house, and they shut down opponents inside. Over the three games, Marquette scored 55 points off 48 opponent turnovers. That says it all right there.

And if you haven’t noticed, they’re fast. Really fast. Marquette’s undersized lineup gives them extra quickness around the perimeter and it translated into an efficient, productive offense. They might lack size, but their speed allows them access to the paint for easy buckets.

Speaking of easy buckets, my new favorite player is Darius Johnson-Odom. After the departure of the Big Three (which I am really getting tired of saying, despite its convenience), the big question was: Where are the points going to come from? Well, DJO has stepped up and been a very pleasant surprise, averaging nearly 12 points a game. He is aggressive, attacks the basket and gives Marquette a little extra swagger on the floor. But Johnson-Odom is knocking down open shots as well, shooting a 50 percent clip from 3-point range (15-for-30 on the year) and keeping defenses honest. It’s a combination of all the little things that has made him so valuable.

“Whatever my team needs me to do, I’m down to do it,” Johnson-Odom said following last Tuesday’s win against South Dakota. “Whether that means coming off the bench, playing hard defense, getting open shots and getting others open that’s what I need to do.”

All in all, despite the loss you have to feel good about this team winning two games and taking down the No. 15 team in the country. Marquette is a quality team with an exciting style of play, and it will be interesting to watch its progression throughout the year.

Rebuilding, huh?  Williams is quite the engineer.