A long time coming

This continues a series in which our staff answers the question: "Which Marquette athlete are you most excited to watch this season?" We conclude with the case for senior Lazar Hayward.

March 22, 2009 will be a day Lazar Hayward never forgets.

With the Golden Eagles down two points and five seconds left, Hayward committed a crucial turnover. He crossed the end line while looking to inbound the ball, costing Marquette a final shot against Missouri.

The turnover devastated fans and alumni, but it devastated Hayward the most. He had eight months before his next game, and eight months to redeem himself.

March 22, 2009 will be a day I never forget.

It's not because of the turnover, but because of a play Hayward made late in that game. With two minutes left in the game, Wes Matthews drove hard to the rack and missed a layup. The box score said Hayward recorded an offensive rebound and made the put back.

But he did much more than that.

He wrestled the ball away from the Missouri Tigers, and went up for the layup. As he went up, he took Leo Lyons halfway up the basket with him. Hayward hit the free-throw after to make it a three-point game.

That play meant more than three points in a second-round NCAA tournament game. The play illustrated how far Hayward has come since his first semester at Marquette.

Hayward came in late as a freshman, due to clearinghouse issues. The late arrival cost him, as he only averaged 16.3 minutes per game. The 6'6'' forward from Buffalo, New York was frustrated with his .208 three-point percentage and his defense.

As a sophomore, Hayward's father advised him to play like he did as a kid. The younger Hayward took the advice to heart and worked on his game all summer. He nearly doubled his scoring and rebounding averages. His three point percentage increased from .208 to .451. As a sophomore, Hayward earned All-Big East honors.

Going into his junior year, Hayward was still under the radar compared to the Three Amigos. But after he started recording double-doubles on a seemingly nightly basis, team's were forced to respect Hayward just as much as any member of the Big Three. He finished the season with career high averages in points and rebounds – 16.1 and 8.6, respectively – and joined Marquette's 1,000-point club.

This year the trio of Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James are gone, leaving Hayward as the go-to guy. Now he's the leader, and he's ready for the responsibility.

The senior says he is "ready for whatever" after his trip to Serbia for the World University Games team. He led the US to a bronze medal, where head coach Bo Ryan didn't allow him to post-up – emphasizing his perimeter game in the European-style play of the tournament. And his ability to take guys off the dribble will be vital to the success of the Golden Eagles this year.

Hayward showed glimpses of his added explosiveness at the All-Access Media Pass event in August. He took a pass from Jimmy Butler on a three-man weave drill, jumped from 12 feet away, and nearly tore down the rim. We all knew that he improved his vertical all the way up to 37 inches, but it was exciting to see the big slam. All of this came from a guy who could barely dunk as a freshman.

During shoot around, he didn't miss. He showed his range from 10 to 25 feet away. He brought the ball up in drills, posted up against smaller opponents and passed with great vision.

In a season where it's all about the new kids, this veteran is truly ready to do whatever it takes to help the Golden Eagles soar.

Now only 53 days remain until Lazar Hayward's senior season.

Fifty-three days until redemption.

Fifty-three days before Hayward can put his mark on another day of basketball that we'll never forget.

Which player performance are you most hotly anticipating? Join the discussion on our message board.

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