Since we're about halfway through the season, I figure now would be a good time to take a look at where MU is at in the season and look at few things they've done well and not-so-well.
How has the season fared so far? Not bad necessarily, but could be much better at this point. There were a lot of question marks going into the season. How well will all of the first-year players integrate into Buzz's system? Will we be completely lost without Lazar Hayward, Maurice Acker, and David Cubillan? Will we continue to be plagued by a lack of size, or will our "big men" inside prove otherwise? Or an even scarier thought: will Marquette miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 7 years?
Since assigning grades is a bit cliché (I'll admit I did it myself when I wrote for collegehoopsnet.com), I'll separate this into areas where we've excelled and areas where we need some help.
What's Gone Well
Emergence of the first-year players. So far the first-year guys have stepped up big time. MU fans had the highest expectations for Vander Blue since he was ranked as one of the top 25 high school recruits last year. He's excelled on defense, has a humble mindset about playing D-1 ball in the Big East, and has proved to be a good shooter inside the arc. Turnovers have been his main issue so far, but that'll correct itself as he develops into a better ball-handler. Jae Crowder, the 2009-10 JUCO player of the year, has proved to be no slouch himself. He's provided some much-needed size in the paint which has directly translated into added boards and points. He's also a threat from the perimeter. While Jae does score well in the post, he's also made some great passes to other teammates on back-door cuts and screens. Last but not least is Davante Gardner. While injuries have kept him on the sidelines, he's proved that he's a scoring machine when he gets in the game (10 MPG and 7PPG). His defense has been a bit questionable, but with a little more time and polish this kid can be a monster for us over the next couple of years.
Winning the Turnover Battle. This stat is one of the most crucial in basketball, and Ken Pomeroy even lists it as one of his "Four Factors" that determine who will win or lose a game (the others are effective field goal %, offensive boards as a % of total boards, and free throws attempted as a % of field goals attempted). MU is turning the ball over on 18.5% of possessions, but is forcing turnovers on 22.6% of defensive series. This statistic should keep us competitive all season long.
Starting out 1-0 in Big East play. It may not seem like much, but the victory over West Virginia was a big one. The mountaineers are 12th in the RPI (#1 in strength of schedule) which means that last Saturday's W was a quality one. After Rutgers on Wednesday, MU has a brutal stretch with 8 of their next 10 games against ranked teams, so we'll take all the wins we can get before those matchups.
What Hasn't Gone Well
Going 0-4 in quality OOC games. Marquette had 4 chances to emerge as a contender during out-of-conference play with games against Duke, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Vanderbilt. Unfortunately they came up short in all 4 of those games. All of the games were close, but this isn't horseshoes so close losses don't count as wins. This issue dates back to last year (and the Tom Crean days if you want to go back further) that in tight games MU just can't seem to close the deal. While they won the close ones last season against Georgetown, UConn, St. John's, and Seton Hall ('Nova in the BE tourney), the losses to West Virginia, Villanova (twice), Syracuse, and Washington were what kept this team from greatness. Buzz has to figure out a way to get this team to close the door on opponents, given that the margin for error in the Big East is so narrow.
Overall defense. Cracked Sidewalks wrote about this a couple days ago, and I agree that it's a big part of why we're losing games. OK, last year we didn't have much depth which wore us down in the late stages of games. This year with added depth we have no excuse. Poor defense (both in the paint and on the perimeter) is what has caused us to lose all 4 of our quality OOC games. The offense is there with 1.14 points per possession, but when the game is on the line, MU can't seem to get it done. Since Crean left for Indiana the defense has improved at playing in tight games, but we're nowhere near where we want to be as far as having a pedigree for winning those types of games. I've got a feeling it's too late in the season for a miraculous turnaround on defense, so this may be something that will more likely show major signs of improvement next season.
Losing Reggie Smith. Sure, Reggie wasn't a major contributor to the team at this point (which is basically why he left the team). Say what you want though, losing a 4-star guard is a serious blow to our depth, as we're down to 4 guards for the rest of the season. We're not at the same depth level as last year, but losing one more significant contributor will put us right back at where we left off.
So where does all of this leave us?
Let's answer the initial questions posed above based on our mid-season highs and lows:
"How well will all of the first-year players integrate into Buzz's system?" Pretty well so far excluding Smith's departure.
"Will we be completely lost without Lazar Hayward, Maurice Acker, and David Cubillan?" Not lost, but our three-point shooting has taken a serious hit.
"Will we continue to be plagued by a lack of size, or will our "big men" inside prove otherwise?" Offensively, we've gotten much better in the paint. Defensively, there's still work to be done.
"Or an even scarier thought: will Marquette miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 7 years?" Currently, Joe Lunardi has us as one of the first four teams out. At this point, I agree with him. However, do we have the potential to make it to a 10 or a 9 seed? Absolutely. With better shooting on the perimeter and improved defense (and continued success in the turnover battle), MU can win 11 or 12 conference games and make the Dance for the 7th straight year.