As usual the Golden Eagles will be led by a talented combo-forward (Jamil Wilson), feature a slow but efficient offense and defend as well as any team in the country.
What's unusual is that Marquette's backcourt, after the departure of 2012--13 leading scorer Vander Blue for the NBA draft, will not be nearly as strong as it has been in the past. Can junior Derrick Wilson be the full-time point guard? Can junior Todd Mayo become a go-to scorer? Will freshman guards Deonte Burton, JaJuan Johnson and Duane Wilson—three components of the best recruiting class that sixth-year coach Buzz Williams has signed—be as good as advertised?
"You win with guards, and you could argue our backcourt is as inexperienced as any we've had," Williams says. "But our collection of frontcourt talent is as good as we've had."
That is the consolation. While center Chris Otule and power forward Davante Gardner, both seniors, will be key contributors, it is Jamil Wilson, also a senior, who will play the role made familiar by former Marquette star big men Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Lazar Hayward. Williams says Wilson is more athletically gifted than those three, all of whom appeared in the NBA last year. But the 6' 7" small forward has yet to display the "edge" those players had. "I have had to work on showing up every day and being that gritty guy that no one wants to go up against," Wilson says.
The Racine, Wis., native believes improved ballhandling and a more consistent outside shot will help boost the 9.7 points per game he averaged a season ago. He and the rest of the frontcourt will have to produce, especially early in the season while the backcourt settles in. "If the guards get stuck, they can slow it down and they have someone down low they can pitch it to, sort of a safety net," says Wilson. "We can rely on that early, and then by the end of the year everything will fall into place."
In addition to its Big East schedule, Marquette will face three ranked teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin, New Mexico -- and also Arizona State, which fell just shy of the rankings, before the end of the year.
Player to Watch: Derrick Wilson
Wilson, a junior, backed up Junior Cadougan at the point guard spot last season. Wilson was the better athlete, but Cadougan was headier and more consistent. Can Wilson find those attributes? "Derrick, I think, is ready for the next step, but with him it is just: Can he realize that he has to come and play every day," Williams says. "I think he can do it and he has worked hard, but he hasn't done it yet. So, we will see."
Telling number: 239
That is Marquette's tempo ranking last season, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Golden Eagles played that slow with a talented and experienced backcourt. Could they play even slower this year?
Q&A with Head Coach Buzz Williams
SI.com: You also are a guy who seems to make sure to have some fun with it all, like you did at Midnight Madness, which stands out when some coaches just take everything so seriously?
Williams: One of my faults, one of things I don't do a good job with, is taking time to appreciate things. If you shadowed me for a day you we see my routine, look at my calendar, and you would see it is like Groundhog Day every day. I don't do a good job calling timeout for myself and looking at it and be appreciative. I'm just thinking: Can we do a little bit better today and tomorrow. That grind has allowed me to get to this point, so I'm fearful of giving up that grind, but at times I have that moment where there is a little release.
SI.com: You've always been very humble and appreciative of getting the opportunity at Marquette. But from the outside people now look at you and say, "That guy is one of the best coaches in the country." Do you think you will ever be comfortable enough to acknowledge that?
Williams: No matter how much information you gather on somebody, you don't really know what it is like to live the life they have lived. Much has been made about how I was the manager of junior college, how I resigned as coach of New Orleans. Much has been made about 13 NCAA Tournament games in the last five years. I'm not disagreeing that those things are important, but I'm the one living this life, and I can only view myself in the way I grew up and was raised and my plight to this position. It is not like after five years my limbs change and I see myself differently . . . I am not meaning to dodge the question. I do hope I am being humble in my response, because who am I to have arrogance in what we have done? Basketball is categorically a really small part of the world. We live in a subculture where we think it is the world. But it is a really small part of it, even though we think it is the world, it is not. And all of it is so fragile. What if I never got head coaching job at New Orleans? I would have had no coaching experience and never would have been able to get this job. But when I left New Orleans to be an assistant, everyone in media was saying I had committed career suicide. Objectively, you could say it was stupid move. I just never want to forget how blessed I am, because I lived a story everyone wants to write and I know how fragile that is. ESPN said I was on my way to the Hall of Fame. I just really hope I can get my picture in the media guide this year.
SI.com: You're a guy who loves the game, who is well-known as being a hard working coach, what keys or tools do you use to find balance with your four kids? Do you have to schedule time for them during the season or is it more organic than that?
Williams: I have to schedule it, yes. Thursday, I picked my daughter up from church and my son up from basketball practice, and I was asking them about their day and tomorrow. I knew then that was the only time I was going to see them when they were awake until Sunday morning. You try and pack it all in then.
SI.com: Do your children understand your job, your life?
Williams: My two oldest are 11 and 10 and they are kind of beginning to figure out my world and how it impacts their world. My daughter says, "How do you keep up with all of that?" I told her, "Well, I have to keep up with it." It is the hardest part of my job. People want to say balance, ask if you have balance in your life, but I don't know if it is balance. It is: Can you be father and husband you are supposed to be while doing this [coaching]? Or, while doing this [coaching] can figure out who you want to be as a father and husband? It is hard, always hard.
SI.com: The conference is going to look a lot different, with five new teams, how does that change your staff's preparation?
Williams: We did a lot of pre-scout, what we call pre-scout. We pre-scout every team we are going to play during the summer. Obviously, the pre-scout for the new teams, we don't have any tape, so all of that stuff was predicated on watching them against other teams. When we play Georgetown, we are looking at what they did to us and what we did to them. This was their counter to that; this was their strategy. But you don't have that with the new teams. So, we track them a little bit more prominently and the first time we play them the assistants who are scouting those teams, you make sure they don't have early assignments so they can spend extra time gathering evidence.