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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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In Sports Commentary

The record isn't where they'd like it to be, but the Marquette Golden Eagles are making progress. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

Marquette is on the right track


On the surface, it seems like the Marquette University Golden Eagles are just a collection of disparate puzzle pieces, sort of floating around the box without a real place to go, to connect to.

After all, heading into the team's trip to the Kohl Center to face the Wisconsin Badgers on Dec. 7, all 11 active scholarship players on Marquette roster was averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Only notable programs such as Alcorn State, Jacksonville, Mercer, Missouri State and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) were playing more scholarship players that often.

Then, against the Badgers, nine Golden Eagles saw the floor and eight saw at least 10 minutes of action.

Derrick Wilson led the team with 39 minutes played in Madison, followed by Jamil Wilson with 34 minutes. Juan Anderson, Chris Otule and Jake Thomas each played 26 minutes and Davante Gardner played 22.

In an 86-50 victory over IUPUI on Saturday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, 10 players saw at least 13 minutes of action.

It's been a long while since head coach Buzz Williams had such fluidity in his rotations, and it's not necessarily something he wants to continue.

"Sometimes (it's) by default," he said of that rotational movement before heading to Madison. "I hope that it becomes not as fluid. If it becomes not as fluid that means that somebody or some ones have had some consistency. Some of it is foul trouble design, but some of it is who are you going to be tonight? And then who are you going to be tonight? And am going I have to cover up that you're not being who I thought you were going to be and then that guy has to cover up because we need you to be that guy and you're not that guy.

Williams continued: "I hope that some of that fleshes itself out and we become more consistent with who we are – this guy is going to give us this and this guy is going to give us this. And when we know those things, then I think it helps us all. It helps your rotation. It helps them understand better what's expected of them. In some ways, I hope the older guys set that bar of this is what I'm going to do on a night-in, night-out basis, on the road, at home, in practice every day, that's who I'm going to be."

With only a handful of games left before Big East play begins – which are really the only games that matter – I have a feeling that some of his players will figure it out.

Todd Mayo, who was suspended for the Badgers game for breaking an unspecified team rule, will have to. You'd like to think having his older brother O.J. just minutes away would prevent things like that from happening, but you never know what might wake a kid up. Perhaps this does. You could argue he could've been the difference 10 days ago.

Jamil Wilson, who scored 22 points against the Badgers and 16 against IUPUI will have to as well. And, the team as a whole probably needs to take fewer 3-pointers at this point (27.8 percent as a team).

On balance, I think this team is headed in the right direction, even though detractors will immediately point to the 6-4 record.

They'll say Derrick Wilson hasn't established himself yet as the point guard, and pine for true freshman Duane Wilson.

They'll say Jamil Wilson & Mayo haven't put it all together (yet) and wonder why two players (Thomas and Anderson) who were all set to the leave the program are seeing such major minutes.

I look at it another way.

I don't think this team had any right to be playing No. 10 Ohio State that doggedly just three games into the season, hanging in there before horrific shooting did them in. I think the two-point loss on the road at Arizona State showed heart.

So did the fact that this team was down 11 to No. 8 Wisconsin with 5 minutes, 50 seconds and then rallied to pull within three with 2:08 left.

True, the end results were not the all-important "W." And it's impossible to say that this non-conference schedule will help the team once Big East play begins at the end of the month.

Even Williams isn't sure.

"I don't know about that," he said. "I think fans believe in all that stuff. I think the media believes in all that. You get into all that prepares you and now you've done it sometime and you've had repeat experiences of it … there's a lot of teams that bye all their games in November and December too and you can't replicate the confidence that comes from 'we win.' It's hard to say. I think it's the most the difficult schedule we've ever played."

Well, I'm a member of the media, so I guess I fall in line in that I don't see how it can't. Through the first seven weeks of Top 25 polls, Ohio State, Wisconsin and San Diego State have appeared in the Top 25. So have future opponents New Mexico, Creighton and Villanova.

While the rankings may be as unsteady as Marquette's rotation at this point, it means that those programs are quality, and they provide excellent measuring sticks for your team. Have the Golden Eagles stacked up? Not yet.

But I do believe the arrow is pointing upward.

That's because this team is getting better. A month ago, following a lackluster 58-53 home victory over New Hampshire, Williams said they were going to rip up the foundation and start over.

Then, the group spent eight days out West. Sometimes, nothing helps a team like a road trip, and Williams acknowledged it helped a bit in some areas. There has been improvement.

In the end however, this team will be judged not on that, or by "playing teams tough." They'll be judged on their total number of wins and whether it not they made the NCAA Tournament. That's the thing to remember though – in the end – which is just under three months away when the Big East tournament concludes on March 15.

That's a long way away, with a lot of games in-between. History says they'll meet all those expectations (five straight tournament appearances, 24.4 wins per year under Williams), and until proven otherwise, it's hard to say this Golden Eagles squad won't follow the path of those that came before it.


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