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GOLDEN EAGLE: Men’s basketball aims for postseason berth

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Photo by Xidan Zhang/xidan.zhang@marquette.edu

Photo by Xidan Zhang/xidan.zhang@marquette.edu

The 2014-15 Marquette Golden Eagles are a tricky team to project. Former coach Buzz Williams, acclaimed seniors Chris Otule, Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson and would-be senior guard Todd Mayo are all out. In are rookie head coach Steve Wojciechowski, senior Brigham Young transfer Matt Carlino and sophomore Indiana transfer Luke Fischer (after the first semester).

It will be a transitional season for Marquette, but one that should not be viewed just as the year before Henry Ellenson’s arrival.

The Golden Eagles will be better than expected this season and it certainly cannot get any worse than it did last season. The team could not live up to lofty expectations and failed to make any postseason tournament after a dismal 17-15 season, which prompted the departures of Williams and then Mayo.

Many believe Mayo’s absence will be a big loss for Marquette and that is true in the short-term. But, looking down the road, Mayo fleeing for possibly not-so-greener pastures could be one of the best things to happen to the program.

Yes, Mayo would have been Marquette’s top returning scorer. Yes, he was fabulous down the stretch, but that was packaged with frustrating inconsistency. Keep in mind, Mayo primarily came off the bench and had a tendency to be in hot water for misbehavior off the court.

Most importantly, Mayo’s absence frees up a lot of minutes for some of Marquette’s exciting young guards to take advantage of. Carlino should provide leadership and more consistent production, whether it be at the point or off the ball.

Redshirt freshman Duane Wilson, who missed last season with a leg injury, could have a great chance to blossom either as a starter or off the bench as the sixth man. Sophomores Jajuan Johnson and John Dawson showed potential in limited action last season and could provide nice depth off the bench.

There will be growing pains. With youth and potential come turnovers and poor shooting performances, but if the youngsters can work out the kinks in the early going, the Golden Eagles’ backcourt could get into a nice groove.

Steady guard play will be especially vital this season. Marquette is not just undersized; it also has a limited frontcourt. Throw in Fischer, who is not eligible to play until the Dec. 18 game against Arizona State, and Marquette will play with five “big men.” Fischer is 6-foot-11, but the next tallest player is Steve Taylor Jr., who is 6-foot-7, while Juan Anderson and Sandy Cohen are only 6-foot-6. Deonte Burton is 6-foot-4 and is listed as a guard and a forward.

Wojciechowski preaches a collective attitude and the motif around the team is they will provide more mismatches for opponents than opponents will cause for them, but how that belief is actually executed will be crucial.

The road to a successful season is a challenging one. After its home opener against Tennessee-Martin, Marquette concludes its home-and-home series with Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, against the Buckeyes, who are ranked 20th in the USA Today preseason poll.

After two home games against Nebraska-Omaha and New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Golden Eagles face another big test Thanksgiving weekend in the Orlando Classic. Marquette tips off in Orlando against Georgia Tech, with potential matchups looming against Michigan State, Kansas or Tennessee.

It does not get any easier for Marquette once they return to Milwaukee, as the team squares off against in-state rival Wisconsin-Madison, who returns most of its key players from last season’s Final Four squad. 10 days later, Marquette hosts Arizona State for the second game of a home-and-home series with the Sun Devils.

After a few softer home match-ups, the Golden Eagles kick off Big East play on New Year’s Eve on the road against DePaul.

The conference slate will provide a variety of challenges for Marquette. Favorite Villanova returns four starters from last year’s unit. Georgetown could be reloaded and has the Big East Preseason Player of the Year in D’vauntes Smith-Rivera. St. John’s possesses arguably the most talented roster from top to bottom and has a few players who could play professionaly. Xavier has arguably the conference’s best big man in center Matt Stainbrook.

Defending conference tournament champion Providence won’t have Bryce Cotton and has seven incoming freshmen, but should be carried by forward LaDontae Henton. Seton Hall could be the biggest sleeper in the conference led by Sterling Gibbs and head coach Kevin Willard’s top-15 recruiting class, which is led by five-star prospect Isaiah Whitehead from nearby Brooklyn.

Butler should be better, but could be without head coach Brandon Miller, who took a medical leave of absence. Creighton will be learning what life without Doug McDermott is like. DePaul is still DePaul, but the Blue Demons nearly beat Marquette twice last season.

The Big East should be improved this season. Most of Marquette’s foes, with the exception of Creighton, Providence and DePaul, should be significantly better or similarly successful. How the Golden Eagles can match-up against talented big men in Stainbrook, Henton, Villanova’s JayVaughn Pinkston and St. John’s Chris Obekpa, among others, will be crucial to their success during conference play.

The league is too competitive to circle any specific games on the calendar, but the most important slate of the schedule begins at the end of January and ends in early February. The Golden Eagles begin the stretch with a road contest against St. John’s then play three straight home games against Georgetown, Seton Hall and Butler, before concluding the pivotal five-game stretch on the road against Villanova.

A positive record during this middle portion of the season could catapult Marquette into a momentous finish to conference play. A poor showing could derail the season if the team struggles mightily.

Marquette is projected by most pundits between fifth and seventh place in the Big East, but there is more upside with this club than the experts think.

Carlino’s presence will prove to be vastly important, while talented underclassmen Duane Wilson, Deonte Burton and Fischer take the next step toward being great college basketball players.

However, Taylor must hold down the fort in the paint until mid-December against some talented non-conference opponents. Another injury to him and Marquette could be in a perilous situation.

It can only go up for the Golden Eagles. A return to the NCAA Tournament could be a stretch under a first-year coach, but it would not be stunning to see Marquette back in the upper half of the conference and in the mix for a tournament spot.

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