However, the Golden Eagles were a high-wire act all season long. The team was tenacious and talented enough to never be out of a game, and did not quit even when things looked difficult in a particular contest. However, it also wasn't good enough or deep enough to put teams away when it had them down. That left it vulnerable to the vagrancies of sheer random chance, and ultimately it was an offensive rebound and a Quincy Pondexter bank shot with less than two seconds to play that did the team in.
That marks the end to one of the most storied careers in the history of Marquette basketball. Lazar Hayward took up the mantle after Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews graduated after last season, at a time when many felt he might declare for the NBA draft rather than come back to be a part of what would presumably be a rebuilding year at the school. He not only led the team back to the Big Dance, but he leaves as the second-leading scorer in school history.
Also leaving are guards Maurice Acker and David Cubillan, leaving Buzz Williams with some holes to fill. He's hoping the backcourt will be fine, with Dwight Buycks ready to step into the lineup and Junior Cadougan poised to take over at the point.
But Hayward will be a much tougher player to replace, and it's a shame that his career ended on the wrong end of one of the best-played games in the NCAA Tournament's first round.
FINAL RECORD: 22-12, 11-7, tied for fifth in the Big East.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Marquette rebounded from a 2-5 start to finish the Big East slate on 9-2 run. Despite the fact that the team wasn't particularly deep and counted heavily on senior Lazar Hayward, it was able to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the Big East and come away with the victory more often than not.
Hayward ended his college career as the second-leading scorer in school history, trailing only former teammate Jerel McNeal. Jimmy Butler emerged as a scoring threat, increasing his average by more than nine points per game to 14.9 ppg.
The Golden Eagles were also one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, knocking down more than 40 percent of their attempts as a team.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Would the Washington game have ended differently had Lazar Hayward not picked up a cheap second foul in the first half? He played just 30 minutes, the fewest of any of the starters.
Though that's just one game, it was a weakness for the team all season. Hayward had a knack down the stretch for sending himself to the sidelines thanks to cheap fouls and Buzz Williams' plan to sit any key player with two early fouls for the rest of the half.
The Golden Eagles also really needed its key players to come through each and every night. If Hayward or Jimmy Butler struggled, the team had a tough time scoring points.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's been a year that's inscribed in my heart, and I want to keep it going -- not for any selfish ambition, not for anything so I can pat myself on the back. But just so I can be around these guys, because it's a special, special group, and I don't know that I'll ever have a chance to coach a group like this again." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THE GOOD NEWS: Though the team loses a huge chunk of its production this offseason in the form of Lazar Hayward, Maurice Acker and David Cubillan, the cupboard is not entirely bare for the Golden Eagles in 2010-11.
Jimmy Butler will hope to take on the Hayward role as team leader and most dependable player as he enters his senior season. Darius Johnson-Odom came on strong at the end of the season and should be ready to take on a bigger role as a junior, and a strong recruiting class will add to the talent level on campus.
THE BAD NEWS: The fact that the Golden Eagles made a return trip to the NCAA Tournament despite the loss of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James last season was in large part due to the performance of Lazar Hayward. He was good enough to carry the team at times, and helped it emerge from its slow start to finish in a fifth-place tie in the Big East. It's hard to see how the team will replace him in 2010-11. Maurice Acker will also be a tough player to lose, and much will be expected of Junior Cadougan as he strives to replace him.
KEY RETURNEES: Jimmy Butler will be the leader of the 2010-11 squad. The rising senior was second on the team in scoring and rebounding this year, and will take on even greater importance next year.
Darius Johnson-Odom will look to build on a strong finish to his sophomore season, and Dwight Buycks should move into the starting lineup. A player to watch is Junior Cadougan, who was expected to miss the season with a ruptured Achilles but came back to play limited minutes at the end of the year and should get the first chance to win the starting point guard slot next year.
--G Maurice Acker almost wasn't a part of the 2009-10 team at all, He left the team briefly during the offseason before returning for the Fall semester, and the Golden Eagles are glad he came back. He finished the season ranked second in the nation with a 3.21:1 assist:turnover ratio.
--C Chris Otule played in just three games after breaking his foot in November. The sophomore may apply for a medical redshirt to try and salvage an extra year of eligibility.
--C Youssoupha Mbao played sparingly as a freshman, missing the final 17 games with injuries to his wrist and his knee. He should get the chance to compete for minutes in the paint in 2010-11.