- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) We begin today with Marquette.
1. Most Big East coaches would settle for having one conference player of the year candidate in any given year. After all, two isn't easy. Think about it: Not only does the team have to be a contender, but both players have to get enough touches to put up star-level counting statistics (because conference awards are typically still a fuzzy function of wins plus production). That Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom were both favorites to win the Big East Player of the Year award at various times last season is a testament to just how good both players were -- and how important they were to their team.
Johnson-Odom and Crowder led the Golden Eagles in touches, which is pretty obvious; less obvious, perhaps, is just how wide the usage gap was. According to Synergy scouting data, DJO and Crowder combined for 1,136 possessions in 2011-12, scoring 1,206 points. (In fact, both players scored exactly 603 points. How's that for balance?) Marquette's third-most-used player, guard Vander Blue, accounted for 363 possessions, while Junior Cadougan and Todd Mayo notched 304 and 303, respectively.
This observation is not exactly groundbreaking: Johnson-Odom and Crowder were Marquette's two best players, and senior leaders to boot. Replacing their production will be -- duh -- difficult. But few teams in the country relied so heavily on two stars last season, and few coaches in the country will have more work on their plate to replace that production than Buzz Williams will have this season.
2. The good news? Williams has the depth to do it. Blue, Cadougan and Mayo are all back, and all capable of making up for the touches lost to the departure of Johnson-Odom, who tended to dominate the ball on the wing. Arizona State transfer Trent Lockett is in the mix. Soft-handed forward Davante Gardner, whose big body is rounding into form, will anchor the middle alongside redshirt senior Chris Otule. Jamil Wilson and freshman swingman Steve Taylor (whom ESPN's scouts say could "develop into a classic small forward") provide options on the wing.
That's the key word for it: options. Blue, a highly touted recruit in the class of 2010, seems the most likely potential star to emerge from the post-DJO era, but Mayo (brother of NBA guard O.J. Mayo) showed flashes of that familial brilliance throughout the 2012 season. Even so, it seems safe to say that no player in Williams' 2012-13 lineup will be as good as either Johnson-Odom or Crowder. But the overall effect could be one of more balance, not less. Touches are no longer at a premium.
3. Which brings us to pace. According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted tempo metric, Marquette was the 16th-fastest team in the country in 2011-12. Johnson-Odom loved to run. (There were few sights in college hoops more exciting than seeing DJO race down the floor, high left-hand dribble in tow, preparing to euro-step a defender into oblivion.) Crowder was a FINO (forward in name only); the 6-foot-6-if-you-say-so energy guy didn't bang in the low post nearly as much as he spotted up from the perimeter. (Spot-ups accounted for 26 percent of Crowder's possessions, most of any weapon in his arsenal.)
Both players were unique. Both could stick with a variety of putative mismatches on defense, and both could fly around the floor on offense. Crowder especially was excellent at chasing down offensive rebounds despite being 20 feet from the rim. All of these things accentuated Williams' preference for up-tempo basketball.
Will that change in 2012-13? Gardner and Otule are far more conventional big men than Crowder; both players are traditional anchor types who need to be near the rim to be effective. Or will Marquette's plethora of backcourt and wing options -- including Cadougan's quick-twitch point-guard style -- keep the Golden Eagles running? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure it matters; pace doesn't guarantee success, or vice versa.
Williams doesn't have to undergo a full rebuild, which is impressive, considering the talent and touches lost. But this is nonetheless hardly the same team that reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Florida in March. That evolution -- whether this team changes its style and pace and scoring balance, and how -- will be the story of its 2012-13 season.