Spoke to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Todd Rosiak today. He’s covered the Marquette Golden Eagles for the past eight years and he knows more about the team than just about anyone. Follow his blog for the latest info on MU.
In a wide-ranging interview, he breaks down a remarkable year for Marquette, which silenced the skeptics, overcame a slow start and made an incredible run to the NCAA tournament.
No. 6 Marquette plays No. 11 Washington 4:20 p.m. Thursday at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
How does Marquette compensate for its lack height?
“They got two guys on the inside (Lazar) Hayward and (Jimmy) Butler who really play taller than they are listed. Hayward is legitimately is only about 6-4½ and Butler is about 6-7 I don’t know why they list him an inch shorter. Neither are real heavy, but they’re strong and they play really good defense on the inside. I made a joke at the Big East that those two guys should have been nominated for Big East Defensive Player of the Year just because every night they’re going in there and they’re banging against guys that are four inches taller and sometimes 50 pounds heavier and they’re holding their own. I think you have to give a lot of credit to those guys.
“The other thing that they do real well, they put a lot of pressure on the perimeter and try to make it hard for the opponents’ guards to get the ball in low. I think the perfect example of that is the game plan they had against Louisville where Samardo Samuels who is one of the better post guys in the Big East and the amount of pressure they used on the guards made it almost impossible for them to get the ball in to him. And once they did, they brought an opposite guy from the post Hayward or Butler over to double and Samuels couldn’t do anything.
“They’ve had their problems. Syracuse gave them some issues with their two big guys, but overall I would say Marquette has done a really good job of mitigating their size deficiency this year.”
(The Golden Eagles shoot the three-pointer very well. Have you seen them have an off night from the outside?)
“Oh yeah. They’ve had a few. They’ve been few and far between. They have happened and when they don’t shoot it well, they don’t play well. Even though they won’t admit it, that’s really what their offense is predicated on. They’ve got legitimately five guys who can step out there and knock it down pretty consistently. Hayward is probably the key guy. When he’s inside, he’s able to drag his guy out with him and he’s a pretty good shooter from out there. Darius Johnson-Odom is their best three-point shooter in terms of range and ability to knock down tough shots from long range. They’ve got five guys that the defense has to honor that opens things up for everybody.
(What has impressed you about them?)
“Mental toughness. This is my eighth year doing this and I’ve never seen a team this tough mentally and that includes the Final Four team with (Dwayne) Wade. Just unbelievable for a team to be 11-8 and 2-5 (in conference) – you kind of saw it with your guys – but 2-5 in the Big East and pretty much left for dead. A six-man rotation. Undersized. Every reason in the world to give up and these just battled, battled and battled.
“If you want evidence of that mental toughness you just got to look at the end of the season when they won three straight overtime road games in a seven-day span. It’s just remarkable.
“It starts from the top. (Coach) Buzz Williams is really a tough-minded guy. He’s hard on his guys, but they respond. It just trickles down to the players. They refuse to quit in any situation. I would say that’s probably their best asset.
(Why has Marquette played so many close games?)
“Again I think it’s an attribute to how tough-minded they are with the fact that they just don’t give up. With their deficiencies they’re going to be in close games because they don’t have the ability to blow many people out. Just off the top of my head, the blew out Providence and they blew out Louisville, but by in large you’re seeing a by-product of the fact that they just don’t have the talent to blow people out on a regular basis. … They go into every game expecting to be close and I think at this time of the year, that mentality probably helps them.”
(Who might be the unsung hero Thursday?)
“I would say there’s probably two. Maurice Acker and David Cubillan. Both of those guys are sub-6 feet. They list Cubillian at 6 feet, but I don’t think he’s that tall. These are two guys who are career backups. Acker actually quit the team in June and he came back two months later kind of a mutual thing. Both sides decided to give it another try.
“These two guys were just awful last year. Obviously Marquette had the three really good guards (last year) and they graduated and nobody really knew what to expect out of these guys coming into this year. They both just played out of their minds. You look at their numbers and they’re not tremendous but the assist-to-turnover ratio both of those guys have is phenomenal. Both knocking down three-pointers. For awhile Acker was shooting like 75 percent from three-point range early in the Big East season which is remarkable.
“And they don’t really get exploited on defense despite their size deficiencies. Both of those guys are world-beaters for Marquette this year. I don’t know where this team would be without either one of them.
(When Marquette is playing well, what is it doing?)
“They are slowing the game down. They are moving the ball. Moving it from inside out. They like to get what they call paint touches. They want to get the ball in the paint at least once or twice a possession and then they run off of that and then work it back outside. They’ve been remarkable at making the extra pass and slinging the ball from side to side and that’s how they get so many open looks from three.
“They’re also very good at taking care of the ball. They don’t turn it over much, especially they don’t turn it over carelessly. They can turn it over against defensive pressure at times, but very rarely will you see them just throw the ball away.”
(When Marquette is not playing well, what’s going on?”
“They’re forcing shots. Basically if you want to see what they shouldn’t be doing, watch tape of from the Georgetown game last week. They forced shots. They shot in a hurry. They turned the ball over. They missed three-pointers. Whey they don’t go in early, generally speaking that’s not a good sign for these guys.”
(When I spoke to Williams, he played up the underdog angle. Is that his pattern?)
“Yeah, they thrive on the underdog role and that’s probably why he’s doing it. I guess I don’t blame him. If you look at the way things went down, you got teams like Xavier and Minnesota coming to Milwaukee and then you got these guys who are seeded right around the same spot and they’re having to go to California again. That’s three out of the last five years they’ve gone out to California and four of the last five they’ve gone to the West. They thrive on the underdog mentality. That’s what they’ve been using all year to rally the troops.”
(Everything that I’ve read and seen about Hayward suggest he’s a great kid?)
“Oh yeah. Great kid. When you get a chance to talk to him, you’ll really love him. Very soft spoken. Unassuming. Pleasant. Got a good smile. The whole deal. He really embodies what the student-athlete experience should be. I’d think the NCAA would like to use him as a poster child. Does everything the right way. He’s a guy that came in as a pretty highly touted recruit, but he played undersized in the post his whole career when he’s really a true (small forward).
“He’s going to leave as the No. 2 scorer in school history. One of only three guys to score 1,700 and grab 800 rebounds. Very decorated guy. Four NCAA tournament teams. Just a tremendous athlete. Tremendous student. Tremendous person all the way around.
(Who are you picking?)
“If Marquette plays the way they need to play which is slow the ball down, take care of the basketball and knock down open shots, I think they’ll win. If they go into this game and they’re harassed by Washington’s guards, if they fall prey to the fact that Washington has got a lot more depth then they do and they’re not able to deal with (Matthew) Bryan-Amaning inside, they’ll struggle and they’ll lose.”