"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A breakdown from the MU Madness scrimmage

Here are my thoughts on Marquette Madness. Keep in mind that I am trying to be as unbiased as possible. That said, in general, as a fan of Marquette hoops, I was extremely encouraged and pleased by what I saw. As with any first practice of the year, there was significant rust and unevenness of play. However, the off-to-the-races style and the terrific talent and athleticism I saw on this team were extremely encouraging. Also of note, the roughness and intensity of play was something I haven't seen to this extent ever at MU, and we've had some intense players here. Guys were going at it full steam and things got chippy quite a few times. For instance, Jerel McNeal once threw a forearm at Jamil Lott's head after a quick skirmish. Marquette is going to punish some teams this year, if the team can stay healthy through its own practices!

Here are some thoughts on the individual players on the team...

Projected starters

Dominic James: DJ looked terrific. Somehow, over the layoff, I had forgotten was a freak of nature he is. His blow by speed and fake-back/roll to the hoop moves make him darn near unstoppable. McNeal, who is a terrific defender, was having a pretty difficult time with him. Perhaps the scariest part (for BIG EAST opponents, that is) is that Dominic hit somewhere in the range of five 3-pointers, some of them from way deep. He has quite obviously been working on his shot. If he can hit that with consistency this year, I think there is little chance he is in a Marquette uniform next year, because the NBA lottery teams will be calling. As it is, Dominic has got to be the conference favorite for Player of the Year (apologies to Lurch... I mean Aaron Gray). The downside and the scariest part for MU fans was that there were a couple times where Dominic got hurt with injuries. Once, he grabbed at his arm (which had a protective sleeve on it), and at the end of the scrimmage, he seemed to have another of his infamous terrible leg cramps, where he had to limp off the court. Gatorade and bananas, Dominic. Fluids and potassium. The good news, though, is that after the game, Dominic was his usual engaging self with the fans, and didn't seem to feel any after effects of the injuries.

Jerel McNeal: Jerel is one of my favorite players ever at Marquette, and the reason is that he gets after it more than 99% of players you will see in college ball. Last night was no different. Defensively, Jerel struggled a bit with Dominic, but was all over the place, with his patented lock-down D. He also took on the scoring load on his team, scoring both while driving to the hole, and surprisingly, showing a terrific long range touch that we haven't seen often in the past. One of Jerel's threes was from WAY downtown, presumably well beyond the NBA line. As I mentioned earlier, he got chippy and gave a forearm to Lott at one point, and generally plays with a snarl and toughness that belies his relatively short and unbulky stature. In terms of errant passes, Jerel's nemesis last year, I don't remember any turnovers but I believe there were a few questionable passes. Jerel looks to have really improved his game overall, most noticeably in his shooting range and ability to go with either hand to the hole.

Wesley Matthews: The first thing that is noticeable with Wesley this year is that he is unmistakenly more muscular this year. You can tell he's been hitting it hard in the weight room. Offensively, Wes' shots did not seem to be falling, but he was able to get to the charity stripe a few times and knocked down his FT's. Was really getting after it on D as well. Wes is a world class athlete, and appears to be due for a breakout year after a freshman year that was interrupted by his foot injury.

(About those 3 Amigos... without a doubt, they have to be one of the very best backcourts in the country, and I'd go so far as to say THE best. All three have very obviously improved from last year, and all three have stepped into definite leadership roles. It is scary how good those three will be together. And they are sophomores... wow!)

Ousmane Barro: Ooze was one of the most pleasant surprises at Madness, I felt. First of all, I found it interesting that during intros, he was the last one introduced, not Dominic. You can feel it in the crowd-- Ooze is incredibly popular and the better he gets, the more people love him. On the court, Ooze looked like a different player. He scored in a variety of ways, the most eye-opening of which was on a turnaround J from about 12 feet, which it is nearly impossible to imagine him hitting before now. He is playing with confidence and aggressiveness on offense, which is a complete turnaround from most of the past two years. He was very good on the boards and just seemed to be more in the flow of the action than he ever was last year. It's clear that he's starting to really LEARN the game, which is something MU fans have waited patiently for with Ooze. Now this is not to say that Ooze was without mistakes and that he has reached his potential already. However, without a doubt, Barro has to be the starting pivot at this point.

Dan Fitzgerald: Fitz played very well in the scrimmage. He hit quite a few 3's with little or no trouble. One of my complaints last year was that he often seemed to be thinking too much about situations and did not have the confidence to just fire away when he had an open 3. Not at Madness. He looked and played confidently, I thought, and seems to have gained some muscle. At this point, he seems like the obvious choice to replace Novak at the starting 4. It will be great to see Fitz be able to concentrate on the forward positions for the most part, and not have to back up the point, as he did last year.

So in sum, my initial starting five would be James, McNeal, Matthews, Fitzgerald and Barro. In contrast to some previous years where the starting rotation has seemed undefined, I think with circumstances as they are (3 very defined starting guards, Barro being clearly the best big man on the team, and Hayward not having the past month to work with the team), this is quite clearly our starting five at this moment. I could see Crean going with a different lineup with time, depending on Lazar's development and matchups (perhaps having Kinsella or Lott in the starting 5 against bigger teams), but at the outset, this will be our starting five.

Now, a little about the players I think will come off the bench this year for Marquette...

Projected Bench Returners:

Mike Kinsella: Besides Barro, Kinsella was probably the biggest surprise of the evening for me in terms of returners. I always suspected Mike could be a solid player, if he was ever able to stay healthy for an appreciable amount of time. For the first time since I've seen him at MU, Kinsella looked and played healthy, and looked like a legitimate option for solid bench minutes. First of all, let's start with the 3-point contest. Kinsella made it to the finals against Cubillan and Acker, and was knocking down 3's with aplumb and with a terrific looking shot. (Cubillan ultimately took the contest.) In the game, Mike seemed to get into Crean's doghouse in the opening minutes, but really redeemed himself after that. He got a number of feeds under the hoop and finished pretty much everything that was given him underneath. He also seemed very solid on the boards, and has definitely added some muscle over the summer. Kinsella could be a nice weapon for Marquette this year. A 7-footer who has some athleticism, can hit the outside shot, and can run the floor... can't complain about that. My comment after seeing him was, "Wow! They are going to LOVE him in Europe next year." And that was not a rip on Kinsella. Who would have thought with all his injuries that Mike would be able to be a viable option to play pro ball after Marquette? If I were to project minutes, I'd say that as long as he stays healthy, Kinsella could be playing 10-15 mpg, depending on matchups. I could see some scenarios (ie: against Pitt) where Crean would start Kinsella over Barro or even play the two together, as Kinsella could better defend a player like Aaron Gray. He will obviously also have to fend off Lott for minutes.

Jamil Lott: I was expecting a lot of Lott coming in, and was slightly disappointed. I had heard that he had really worked on his game over the summer and it is evident that Lott has been hitting the weights hard. He has gained a ton of muscle. Overall, Lott looked OK, playing some pretty good post D and finishing a couple times around the hoop. He also had a couple turnovers, though. Lott will definitely play a role this year, probably at both the 4 and the 5, as he is quick enough to get some PF minutes for us alongside Barro/Kinsella. He does appear to be playing with more confidence this year, and more knowledge as to where he is supposed to be when (one of my complaints year). I'm not really down on Lott so much as I was expecting a lot of him and not much from Kinsella. Both played relatively well in the scrimmage, with Kinsella impressing a bit more because of more offensive touches. The battle for minutes with these seniors will be interesting this year, but the good news is that the three-headed monster of Barro, Lott and Kinsella have all apparently improved since last year, and that bodes well for Marquette's chances this year.

Dwight Burke: If anyone has changed his physical appearance over the summer, it has to be Dwight Burke. Burke has shed his baby fat from last year, and looks big and powerful. He is still somewhat raw on offense, but really got after it in the scrimmage, and I'm hopeful for his future on this team. He sort of seemed nonexistent in this scrimmage, as can happen with role players. I think Dwight is a year away from regular contributions, since it will be unlikely that he will beat out a more athletic Lott or a taller Kinsella for many minutes, assuming both stay healthy. However, if Burke keeps his good attitude and keeps after it, look for him to fill in minutes here and there this year, and really come into his own as a junior.

Projected Bench Newcomers:

Lazar Hayward: Lazar was battling a lot coming into this scrimmage. He has been unable to practice in The Al with his team for the past month due to an ongoing NCAA investigation. Not having the on court chemistry with teammates or the intensive conditioning, I was not expecting him to do a whole lot in this scimmage. That said, Lazar definitely impressed. First of all, his body is that of a senior, not a freshman. Physically, Lazar looks much more ready to man the undersized 4 position in the BIG EAST than Novak ever did. He rebounded well, and hit a nice three and got after it on D. What I like about Lazar is that he seems like a nice complement to the talented guards we have on our squad. He is a step ahead of most players with his athleticism, but isn't the same type of player Matthews and McNeal are, for example. It was hard to get much of a read on Lazar at Madness, since Crean kept giving him breathers, but I'm very encouraged. Fitzgerald seems more ready to start at this point, but it would not surprise me to see Lazar in the starting lineup by conference play.

David Cubillan: I was MUCH more impressed with Cubillan than I thought I would be. This kid clearly flew under the national radar. He has the game and the body of a top 100 player. I believe what probably hindered him was the incredible wealth of talent at St. Benedict's, his prep school, which likely tempered national recognition. Like Hayward, Cubillan is physically ready to get out there. He's a very muscular little guard and looks incredibly ready to take some minutes immediately. Billed as more of an undersized two out of high school, Cubillan showed me that he could play the point. He has handles and a lot of lateral quickness. On top of all that, Cubillan can play rock solid defense on the perimeter and can hit the three with consistency. In fact, Da-VEED not only hit a trey in the scrimmage but defeated Acker in the 3-point contest. I'm very encouraged by Cubillan and think that he is going to be a terrific role player off the bench this year behind James, McNeal and Matthews, a luxury we really didn't have last year. Although he's not as explosive as James, I don't feel as if our offense will stagnate with him at the helm for minutes at a time, and it is very possible we could put James at the 2G for some minutes alongside Cubillan. A terrific and underrated recruiting pickup by Crean. Some compared him to Karon Bradley when we got him to commit. From what I've seen, Cubillan is a better player in every respect than Bradley was.

Trend Blackledge: I frankly expected little or nothing from Blackledge when I heard that he had lost weight and was at around 170 pounds. However, Blackledge's play was actually fairly encouraging, I thought. First of all, he is a very athletic and LONG forward. He adds a dimension to this team that we did not have last year... the combo forward athlete. He is very active under the hoop, and actually had a great tip dunk and another alley oop from Acker that was called off because of a foul. That said, Trend definitely has his raw points. He showed some butter fingers at a couple points in the scrimmage, fumbling the ball and turning it over. I couldn't decide if this is an issue or if it is just a matter of rust or nervousness. At any rate, Trend has a lot of potential, and if you were to add 20-30 pounds onto him, he could be a really solid rotational player at most any school in the country. As things stand, if Lazar gets entirely qualified, I would think Crean will look long and hard at redshirting Blackledge, with the hope that he can add weight and experience, and then have two years to impact the BIG EAST.

Maurice Acker: In my opinion, Maurice Acker was the most surprising player on the court at Madness. This kid is tiny, but the bottom line is that he is a big time player. I went through the scrimmage watching Acker and trying to compare him to a sophomore version of Cordell Henry. Acker is significantly better than Henry at the same stage in his career. Maurice is lightning quick, much quicker than Henry was. He can handle the ball with either hand, again, much better than Cordell could. He is a smart player, always seeming to be at the right place at the right time. He can shoot the 3, as witnessed by his runner-up performance in the 3-point contest. The only drawback I can see with Acker is his slight, smallish size. This may be an issue defensively in the future. However, I believe that any downfalls are certainly made up for with his talent and skill. I came into Madness thinking we would need to land a top flight point guard in 2008, especially if Dominic James leaves early for the pros. Now, I am not so sure about that. Cubillan and Acker are both very, very solid players. They are not freaks of nature like James, and will not be as dangerous as he is on offense. But both are very capable of leading this team into the future, and I feel confident that with the addition of Scott Christopherson, we will be fine at point guard, no matter when Dominic leaves. Honestly, after watching Acker, it will be tough for me to wait a year and see what he can do on the court for Marquette.

One final note with both Acker and Cubillan, and this was brought up on the Marquette message boards already. It seemed like both players were absolutely money when they got enough lift on their threes. When they didn't jump high enough, they both seemed to hit front iron. If Crean can get both of them to get up on their threes, both will be deadly, consistent long range shooters for us in the future.

Prognostications are always difficult, but I think this Marquette team will surpass some people's already fairly high expectations this year, particularly if Lazar becomes eligible. This has to be one of the country's most athletic teams, and Crean is going to run, run, run teams off the court this year. If healthy, this team has the potential to be a team like Villanova had last year, which had Final Four potential. At present, I would guess a Sweet 16 appearance is very doable this year. No matter what, it's clear Marquette fans are in for a treat with this year's squad.


Anonymous said...

Solid write-up. I walked away from the scrimmage with three main thoughts:

1) This team can run with ANYONE, and I've never seen that at MU.

2) The versatility Crean has with the lineups is scary. They can be effective in a variety of lineups.

3) Lazar being eligible could mean up to 2 more wins in conference play. He is flat out smooth, and you can tell he understands the game quite well. I would put him ahead of where Wes and Jerel were at this time last year.

Anonymous said...

With an understanding that there will be rust on this team, I still cannot wait for the first big games of the fall when we play Wisconsin, and - hopefully - Duke, in a couple of weeks.

I still hold on to another blog that said if one of our big men can step up to contribute moderate stats this year, this team is definitely top 3 in the conference. Hopefully Ous, Kinsella, or Lott are ready to fill that spot.

Great blog, keep up the hard work.

Anonymous said...

Is the game game against Hillsdale college a real game or a preseason game?

Anonymous said...

it is an "official" game on our schedule. it's in quotes because, even though the game is not preseason, the result won;t count in our rpi since they are DII.