Two days away from the "official" start of the 2008-09 season and the Marquette Golden Eagles have a lot of questions surrounding the team. Some of those questions surround junior Lazar Hayward this year.
But why the concern?
After all, the rock-solid forward from Buffalo, N.Y. proved last season that he could play post defense, and he showed that he was a big-time threat on the offensive side of the court by becoming the third-leading scorer on a team that averaged 76 points per game.
Yet, with the lack of size on Marquette's roster this year, the 6'6" Hayward finds his name mentioned among the possible concerns. However, with the roles of a lot of players still in the air, his role is concrete, and that's one thing he's happy about.
"Buzz told me that I would be doing the same things as I did last year," Hayward said. "Over the offseason, he said he wanted me to focus on getting stronger, especially defensively."
Hayward has bulked up this year, and he may need every ounce to lead Marquette to victory. He's the team's leading returning rebounder at 6.5 boards per game.
Conditioning will be important, as the lack of quality depth on the interior may force Hayward to see even more than his 25.4 minutes per game last season.
The lack of depth also means that Hayward may be prone to more fouls with all the time he'll be spending around bigger players on defense.
"All of us (big guys) have worked on not fouling as much," said senior center Dwight Burke. "It's key for a guy like Lazar because he can do so much on the other side of the ball. Keeping him in the game gives us another offensive weapon."
This realization was a motivating factor in Hayward's offseason strength training.
"Extra strength is always a help," he said. "When you can push a little more before your opponent gets the ball, it gets you in better position. Then we don't foul as much."
Although his main focus this summer was improving his defense and conditioning, Hayward still found time to fine-tune his offensive game.
"Buzz wants to move me around a lot this year," Hayward said. "I can post up a little more, but he also want me to continue working on my outside game to cause any sort of mismatch [I can]. He's not going to limit me to one area – I'll be moving all over the place."
Opponents will need to respect Hayward's shooting ability. He shot 45% from downtown last year, and his ability to pull defenders out of the paint will help the rest of the offense immensely.
"It's great that he can stretch the defense out," said senior guard Wes Matthews. "If a bigger guy is on him, he can pull it outside and take him. If a smaller guy is on him, he can take him into the post. He will create a lot of matchup problems."
This is a much different season for Hayward, as he enters the 2008-09 campaign coming off of a 12.8 points-per-game average a year ago. What changed from his freshman year to his sophomore year?
"I kept talking to my dad about my prep school days, and he reminded me about playing pick-up games. You have to win to keep the court, and you don't want to stop playing, so you do everything you can to win."
As the killer instinct came back, so did the confidence. After shooting only 21 percent from beyond the arc freshman year, he found his stroke last season. And that's a good thing because his teammates are counting on him.
"I don't know how else to explain it, but Lazar may be our most important player," senior Jerel McNeal said. "When he goes, we go."
With a team that's full of question marks before Marquette Madness, the Golden Eagles are hoping that Hayward will be among the solutions.
Marco Radenkovich is a junior majoring in supply chain management.
This is the fifth of six feature stories on MarquetteHoops.com leading up to Marquette Madness. Check back for the final installment tomorrow, as Nick Chmurski takes a look at Jerel McNeal's offseason.