Marquette came to the Old Spice Classic in Orlando hoping to prepare for Big East play by facing some of the better teams in the country. What the Golden Eagles got was a boatload of confidence and two wins that are sure to look good on their tournament resume come March.
They ended the tournament Sunday night with a heart-breaking loss to Florida State, 57-56, in the Championship game. Senior Lazar Hayward, who finished the game with 19 points and 10 rebounds, hit a jump shot from the free throw line with 32 seconds left to give Marquette the lead before FSU's Solomon Alibi returned the favor with a baseline floater of his own. Hayward averaged 22.6 points and 7.3 rebounds over the course of the tournament and was named to the All-Tournament team.
Jimmy Butler continued his excellent play and has joined Hayward as a frontcourt player who will battle against bigger forwards night in and night out and grab boards with hustle and fundamentals rather than size. Big men like Jason Love (21 points, 19 rebounds) and Chris Singelton (18 points, 10 rebounds) were able to get their stats in the paint against these two, but never took over the game.
The tournament was also a coming-out party of sorts for combo guard Darius Johnson-Odom, who averaged 13 points and two three-pointers per game. He hit big shot after big shot and showed a nice combination of perimeter touch and the ability to drive to the hoop with either hand. His big frame and high hops allow him to hang in the air and complete shots, even with contact.
Marquette's biggest improvement came from the overall defense and, as a team, the Golden Eagles held their opponents to under 44 percent shooting from the field and forced 48 turnovers. Constant ball pressure and quickness on the outside made it tough for opponents to get the ball in the paint and forced bad shots. Attribute a lot of that pressure to David Cubillan and Maurice Acker, the two senior point guards who really made the ship sail on the defensive end. While he struggled to score, Acker had eight steals in the tournament and did a great job turning those steals into transition offense.
Another big part of that transition offense was Dwight Buycks, who seemed to be in the right spot at the right time for Marquette on the break and finished very strong at the basket when he got the ball. Buycks is turning into the "duct tape" guy for the Golden Eagles, giving them a little bit of everything in the scoring, passing, and rebounding department as well as solid help defense.
Overall, the tournament has to be viewed as a major success for head coach Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles. Basically left for dead two games in a row, first against a taller Xavier team and then a more fundamentally sound Michigan team, Marquette proved they can hang with the big dogs and use their aggressive nature to force opponents into bad decisions. Late in the championship game, Florida State switched to a four-guard offense and took their best player, Alibi, out of the game for a large chunk of the second half. Marquette's match-up problems on offense let them dictate what the other team did, and the results showed.
As much as Marquette gained from this experience as a team, they also have an early headliner for their tournament resume with wins over Xavier and 15th-ranked Michigan. Both of Marquette's victories came against teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament come March, and Florida State should fight towards the top of the ACC standings, meaning Marquette's RPI should benefit greatly form their Old Spice appearance.
Thus, the future looks a whole lot brighter for Marquette than it did a week ago. Not to say that anyone doubted that Marquette had talent, but the early returns are showing that they have the right combination of talent and playing style to compete with, and beat, some of the best teams in the country. And that early confidence can only help the ceiling of how good this team can be grow even higher.
A win over Florida State might have pushed Marquette into the top 25, and while they should receive some votes on Monday, that's not Buzz Williams' focus. Rather, the bigger picture of racking up wins and experience before the brutal Big East schedule begins would seem to be Marquette's single-minded goal.
In that regard, consider this weekend's showing an overwhelming success.
Read more from Mark Strotman at http://strotty.wordpress.com/.