As the 2010 Tournament approaches, there is a lot of talk the about what was or wasn't expected out of this year's Marquette squad. We've heard all about all the dire preseason predictions, the 12th place pick in the Big East coaches poll, the loss of all the talent, and the fact that there was no real hope of competing this year. But there's one prediction that sticks out in my mind as I look at where this team is now. I can't remember who said it, but someone before the season offered up this pie in the sky hope for the 2010 season, "Maybe it'll be just like 2006 and we'll win with 1 star and a bunch of new guys." At the time, that line was offered up more as an attempt to boost morale, but the way things have shaken out, this season looks awfully similar to that 2005-2006 campaign. Both teams exceeded expectations, got monster years out of star seniors, had previously unthinkable contributions out of their newcomers, and made their coaches look like geniuses. But how do these two seasons stack up when you compare them to each other? Which one is the better story? Let's put our Nick Bakay hats on for a minute and break things down "scientifically".
2006: "You guys will be the Northwestern of the Big East" - Marquette came into their inaugural Big East season with people pretty much predicting the end of the "nice little run" that Tom Crean and Co. had put together over the past 4-5 years. But there was a highly touted (scout.com #14 ranked) freshmen class coming, headlined by Dominic James and Wisconsin state POTY Wesley Matthews Jr., that offered a little glimmer of hope. Combine that with the presence of senior Steve Novak, promising sophomore Ryan Amoroso, and the addition of Tulane transfer Dan Fitzgerald, and those who followed the program closely knew that things might not be as dire as those on the outside may have believed. And if that didn't cheer one up, Marquette still had the coach that brought Dwyane Wade to Milwaukee and led us to a Final Four just 3 years prior.
2010: "I just don't know man, it's not gonna be pretty" - This year the expectations were just as low. Marquette lost the numbers 1, 3 and 8 leading scorers in school history. Lazar Hayward was still here, but no one had seen him without the 3 Amigos. And of the returning players, only Jimmy Butler had shown any promise of being a regular contributor. The incoming class was similarly highly touted (scout.com #18 ranked), but lacked a little of the star power that came on campus in 2005. It did included two-time Wisconsin state POTY Jeronne Maymon and Junior Cadougan, a player that had been turning a lot of heads and rapidly rising up the recruiting rankings. But before we even got to Midnight Madness, Cadougan blew out his Achilles tendon and was deemed out for the year. The class also included two JUCO transfers in Dwight Buycks and Darius Johnson-Odom, and JUCO players are always a crap shoot. And the jury was still way out on Buzz Williams on the bench. He had a nice year the previous season, but that was with three all-conference, senior guards. No one was sure what to expect this year. Even the most die-hard of Marquette fans were preparing for the worst.
Advantage: 2010 - This year had all the makings of, at best, a rebuilding year or, at worst, the beginning of a slide towards mediocrity.
2006: Steve Novak - Novak came into his senior season having served as little more than a role player in his first 3 seasons. Albeit a very talented role player, but one who had never shown signs that he could be a go to guy. Even in the preseason games that year Novak looked like the same player he'd always been: too deferential, too reluctant to shoot, and not rebounding like a guy that's 6'10". He was the country's most talented spot-up shooter, but that was it. But that all changed on January 2, 2006. Novak flipped the switch, dropped 41 on #2 UConn, and was never the same. He played like a superstar for the rest of that year. He not only continued to drain 3s at an alarming rate (46.7% for the season), but started putting the ball on the floor, creating his own shot, and even rebounding! Novak was an NBA talent all along, but didn't show it until the last half of that season. His game winner versus Notre Dame that season is still one of my all-time favorite shots.
2010: Lazar Hayward - Hayward faced similar questions as Novak as he entered his senior season. He had improved each year. In 08-09 he basically became the "4th Amigo". He finished 3rd in scoring and led the team in rebounding. But still, he was playing alongside Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and Dominic James. Opposing defenses had a lot more to concern themselves with besides Lazar Hayward. People were concerned that Lazar would have a lot more trouble when he was the focal point of opponents' defenses. This year he has operated all year as the undisputed #1 option, and really the only guy that an opposing defense need to make a game plan for. Yet he has still led the team in scoring and rebounding. Not only that, but he has done so while guarding a player that usually has about 4-5 inches on him, usually guarding him well and avoiding fouls. He's also assumed the mantle of the emotional leader of the team. He knows that he's the senior and from day 1 all eyes have been on him, and he's embraced that. There has never been any doubt that this is his team.
Advantage: 2010 - This is really a tough call. But Zar gets the nod on account of the defending out of position all year, being the "heart and soul" guy, and playing with less talent around him. (Nothing against Jimmy, DJO, Mo, et al. but Novak had the school's future all-time leading scorer, another future NBAer, and a guy who would've been a lottery pick if he'd gone out after his freshman year.)
2006 - In '06 Marquette had 9 players average more than 11 minutes per game. Only 2 players, Novak and James, played more than 29 a game. Chapman, Fitzgerald, Barro, Lott, and Amoroso were all regular contributors off the bench
2010 - What depth? This season all 5 of the regular starters have averaged 29 minutes a game or more. Buycks averages 24 minutes off the bench, followed by Fulce just a shade under 12.
Advantage: 2006 - Injury and desertion have decimated what was supposed to be Marquette's depth this season. Coaching philosophy probably has something to do with more guys getting run back then as well.
2006 - Nope: Got spanked 77-63 at Ho Chi Madison. Kam Taylor scored 18 and seemed to make everything he threw up there.
2010 - Negative: Lost 72-63 in the People's Republic. No answer for Jon Leuer, who dropped 24 on us.
Advantage: Push - Too bad really. A win against the GD Badgers would been worth at least double the points.
2006 - The ‘06 team created a buzz that hadn't been around the MU program since Wade and the Final Four run. That group of freshmen, starting with Dominic James, seemed to bring a swagger and an energy to the floor every night that got people talking. It carried over to their teammates, and it carried over to the city of Milwaukee. They were taking the best basketball conference ever conceived by man by storm, and they were so fun to watch. This garnered them a lot of media attention nationally (and even a little locally) and undoubtedly put more butts in seats in the BC. They were kind of a big deal.
2010 - This team is an awesome story. The guys that are major contributors for this team, and where they've come from is damn impressive. But for whatever reason, they just haven't created the juice that that '06 team did. Perhaps it's the lack of star power, not having 3 future pros (I count Dom James as a future NBAer, it's really just a matter of time till he gets a shot), the lack of a tireless promoter as a head coach, the newness of the Big East wearing off, or the super low expectations but people have seemed reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Of course this year's games do come with a surgeon general's warning, cautioning those with heart conditions, hypertension, or a desire to keep all your hair, against watching.
Advantage: 2006 - For whatever reason there just hasn't been quite as much juice around this year's team. Not that they haven't gotten plenty of love, but it's just not quite the same.
Big East Record
2006 - 10-6, 4th place
2010 - 11-7, 5th place
Advantage: Push - Meh, who wants that stupid double bye anyways?
Big East Tournament
2006 - Lost to Georgetown
2010 - Lost to Georgetown
2006 - Tom Crean had been riding the wave of the Final Four run for the past two seasons. But failing to make the tournament in the two seasons after that had some people starting to wonder. He hadn't been able to get over the hump in CUSA with Travis Diener, Scott Merritt, and Co. He hadn't been able to get the most out of Steve Novak. There was a lot riding on that season for Tom Crean. But as he always did, he managed to turn things around just when it seemed like they might be getting away from him. He pushed the right buttons and got Novak to finally unlock his potential. He furthered his reputation as a recruiter by bringing in a class that was as good as advertised, if not better. If not for the job he did in that season, Tom Crean doesn't get a bazillion gazillion dollars from "It's Indiana, It's Indiana".
2010 - Buzz Williams came into this season with a lot of question marks. He had won in '09, but the year finished on a bit of a slide after the injury to Dominic James. He was handed a team with 3 very talented senior guards that would carry the team all year. And the talent was all guys that were brought here by Crean. This year, he had Hayward, a bunch of guys that averaged 5 points or less last year, and some unknown newbies. He has won with a team that starts 2 guards under 6 feet, who both nearly quit the team after barely seeing the light of day last year. Injuries completely decimated his front court, his point guard situation, and had a player quit the team in the middle of the year. If you can find me a coach that has gotten more out of his players this year than Buzz Williams, I'd like to see ‘em. The team has bought into his "one day at a time" mantra, and it has shown.
Advantage: 2010 - I really don't think this one is even debatable. Buzz has held this team together, adapted the style of play to give the team the best chance to win, and done it in his own humble, quirky way. They are 8-8 in games decided by 5 points or less, but at one point they were 1-7(!) in such games. They won 11 of their last 14 games, and came back from what could've been a season ruining loss at DePaul. They rebounded from repeated heart-breakers to open the conference season. Many a team would've been sunk by all those blows, but not this year's Marquette team. And that is a testament to the coach. Plus, a coach always looks better when he has a player that can just take the ball and make it happen when all of his schemes and plays fall apart. Tom Crean had that, Buzz Williams does not.
So there we have it folks. It looks like the edge goes to the 2010 season 3-2 (a one point game, what a surprise). Is it possible that I'm a bit biased because I'm still in the throes of the '10 season, and now 4 years removed from '06? Maybe. Does my residue of resentment towards Tom Crean cloud my judgment? Perhaps, but I'm not among most extreme Crean haters so I don't think so. Don't get me wrong 2006 was an awesome run, but I just think that all the things that have gone into this season just make it all the more special. Here's to hoping that they can get a couple wins in the tourney now, and really seal the deal. Of course that's just my take, I've been wrong before.