Men’s basketball proves bigger isn’t always better

The Marquette men’s basketball team’s best players are not its biggest. That’s all that matters to Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams.

Even with 6-foot-6 Lazar Hayward (32) in the middle, the Golden Eagles believe they have the advantage.
Even with 6-foot-6 Lazar Hayward (32) in the middle, the Golden Eagles believe they have the advantage.

When it comes to positions, the second-year coach will not adhere to conventional size restrictions if a smaller player presents a better option. He proved that last season by matching the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Lazar Hayward against opposing centers for nearly half of every game. And now, with sophomore center Chris Otule out for the season, Williams is proving it again.

“That’s kind of the way it’s going to have to be,” said Hayward, who has started the past four games at the five-spot for the Golden Eagles. “Coach will always put in the five guys that give us the best chance to win.

“It’s to no surprise to anyone that we’re one of the smallest teams in the country.”

No, the surprise comes from the success Marquette has found in spite — or perhaps because — of its vertically challenged lineup. Even more surprising is the fact that the Golden Eagles have handled opposing teams in a variety of ways and have still gotten the result, or at least come close.

“We try to stop them from doing whatever they’re good at,” freshman forward Jeronne Maymon said.

For Xavier, that’s shooting the 3-pointer. In the Musketeers’ five other games this season, they hit a combined 46-of-92 (50 percent) from behind the arc. Against Marquette in the first round of the Old Spice Classic, 6-foot-9, 255-pound center Jason Love may have had a heyday (21 points, 19 rebounds) but the Musketeers shot just 5-for-17 (29.4 percent) from 3-point range.

Against Michigan, the Golden Eagles turned in an all-around impressive performance, committing just 10 turnovers, outrebounding the Wolverines 33-27 and holding them to just 3-for-20 from deep. Michigan’s 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward DeShawn Sims finished with just eight points and six boards, while Hayward and Marquette’s other starting “forward,” Jimmy Butler, each hauled in nine rebounds and combined for 39 points.

And while Marquette didn’t get the desired result against Florida State, it wasn’t for a lack of size. Seminoles star center Solomon Alabi turned in just eight points and seven rebounds, and the Golden Eagles were only outrebounded by three.

“They have an advantage on offense, them being taller and bigger,” Butler said. “But we also have an advantage on offense, us being smaller and quicker, so we just attack the bigs.”

Last season’s Golden Eagles squad proved it could compete in the Big East with Hayward in the middle. Only two returning players — Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody and DePaul’s Mac Koshwal — averaged more than Hayward’s 8.6 rebounds per game. Combine that with Butler’s exceptional rebounding ability — he averaged 8.6 rpg through three games in the Old Spice Classic — and suddenly the Golden Eagles are looking at their small-ball lineup as a plus.

“Not many teams in the nation play four guards,” Butler said. “Really, we kind of play five if you look at it. And I think that’s very, very hard to guard.”

Come Saturday, Marquette welcomes North Carolina State, led by 6-foot-8, 247-pound forward Tracy Smith, to the Bradley Center. That means Butler and company will have another chance to prove just how effective small-ball can be.