Lazar Hayward and the Golden Eagles will try to shake the "rebuilding" tag they've been given by the mainstream media as they open the season at home against Centenary tonight.
Centenary sports one of the youngest teams in the nation, including seven freshmen and just one senior. Yet that high number of new players, and the fact that they have not played a game of any kind to date this year, makes the Gentlemen difficult for Buzz Williams and his staff to prepare for.
"They haven't played an exhibition or a scrimmage so there's no information out there and we're just basing it on what they did last year," Williams said. "Whether or not they actually do that, we don't know. But we're going to prepare as such."
It might not matter how Marquette prepares for this game, as the Gents went 8-23 last season under head coach Greg Gary and will be moving from Division I to Division III within the next two seasons.
Starting off with an easy opponent might be exactly what the Golden Eagles need after another setback to key newcomer Darius Johnson-Odom, who suffered another foot injury against MSOE on Saturday.
"They go up for a rebound, and Chris Otule lands on [DJO's] foot," said Williams. "His foot is injured on the arch, so when Chris stepped on it, it scared him and somewhat tweaked the bottom of his foot."
Regardless of the opponent, Marquette still has a lot of questions that need to be addressed during the early portion of their non-conference schedule – defense being one of them. Williams admits that his young team is coming along at the pace he expected.
"I think they're beginning to understand what we're trying to do," he said. "How we want to guard the post, how we want to guard the ball, how we want to play one pass away, how we want to play two passes away."
The Golden Eagles allowed Division-III MSOE to shoot over 54 percent in the first half of their exhibiton opener, and junior Jimmy Butler knows his coach has a low tolerance for defensive lapses.
"You can shoot some balls but, if you don't play defense you're coming out," Butler said. "So Buzz is really stressing that and I think, [the player are] trying their hardest."
But questions aside, perhaps the biggest consistent so far this year is that all eyes will be on Hayward, a Preseason All-Big East First Teamer and a member of the Naismith Trophy Preseason Watch List.
The senior, who averaged 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds a season ago, will no doubt be the focus of opposing defenses. But his teammates have also singled him out – as a rallying point for their season.
"That's what I live for right now, to see Lazar make it to the [NCAA] Tournament," Butler said. "You never hear Lazar talk about himself. You never hear him talk about going to the NBA. You have no choice but to look up to him."
And it will certainly take more than just Hayward for Marquette to make its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The learning curve for any newcomer adjusting to play in the Big East Conference is always a steep one, and Williams believes that the way his young players respond mentally to adversity make be the biggest difference this year.
"I do think we're behind but I think we're behind for the right reasons," Williams said. "We're not behind because we haven't been accountable. We're behind because there's a lot going on in our guy's minds every possession."
Their acclimation starts in earnest at 7:30 tonight, when the regular season tips off against Centenary.