Posted: Thursday October 19, 2006 12:34PM; Updated: Thursday October 19, 2006 1:45PM
James, who was an admirer of the chemistry that 'Nova had last season, said the strategy would give MU's break "a more natural flow." Matthews, meanwhile, explained the plan like this: "Whoever's closest to the ball [on the outlet] can get it, and everybody else fills the lanes."
With a hopeful look on his face, he added, "We're going to catch a lot of people off guard with that."
Heart And Soul: Crean has a banner hanging in the practice gym that reads, "The star of the team is the team," and he said that the leadership duties are split amongst his guards. James, though, has to be regarded as the top dog. Novak led the team in scoring but James was arguably the Eagles' most important player last season. In just his second year, he's regarded as one of the top three (along with Alabama's Ronald Steele and Florida's Taurean Green) point guards in the nation. Crean said James leads a lot by example: "He gets to the rim, he has great vision and he brings a lot of enthusiasm and inspiration to our guys."
Glue Guy: Matthews. Had he not suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in the game prior to Marquette's Big East opener -- and sat out the entire month of January -- Matthews would have been a season-long starter. He may be the closest thing, in terms of body type and athleticism, to Dwyane Wade that the Eagles have had since Wade left, but Matthews also has value as a teacher: The son of a former University of Wisconsin hoops star and NBA journeyman, he has enough command of the team's offensive and defensive sets to serve as an on-court coach. "Wesley has a great understanding of the game; he knows where everybody should be and where he should be at all times," Crean said. Matthews is very comfortable with that role -- he said he's been playing it since he "was about 8 years old."
Most Improved: McNeal. An explosive guard whose style, Crean said, is "attack, attack, attack, and then when you're done attacking, attack again," he was the Eagles' third-leading scorer last season. He also shot only 28.3 percent from three-point land. In practice he looked like anything but a sub-30-percent gunner, stroking a few long treys, and confirmed afterward that shooting had been the primary focus of his offseason workouts. Junior forward Dan Fitzgerald said of McNeal, "He can get to hole whenever he wants, but now he has crazy range."
X-Factor: Fitzgerald. A backup point guard last season, he's moved to the four to become Novak's likely replacement. Crean regards him as the team's best pure shooter; in a recent five-minute drill, Fitzgerald nailed 65 3-pointers -- two short of the team record held by Novak. "Fitz," as he's called in practice is, like Novak, also tall (6-9), lanky (205 pounds) and white, so the comparisons will be inevitable. And the kick-outs, with those three guards penetrating, will be plentiful. The absence of Novak was glaring in practice when it took the Eagles 45 minutes to finish a drill that required making four shots in succession -- a dunk, a bunny in the lane, a free throw and a three. Can Fitzgerald step up and be the gunner they need?
X-Factor No. 2, Eligibility Edition: Freshman Lazar Hayward, a 6-6 forward from Notre Dame prep in Massachusetts could, if cleared to play by the NCAA (his case is still pending), step in and play a major role. He's already Marquette's most athletic frontcourt player, can stroke the three as well as any of the guards, and would be an extremely valuable rebounder. That's a department where the Eagles are weak: Their top two returning glass-cleaners are James and McNeal, at 4.5 each per game.
Lost in the Shuffle: There isn't a definitive answer to this one yet. It could be 7-foot senior Mike Kinsella, who might be the team's most skilled offensive big man -- he flashed finishing moves in the post on more than one occasion in practice -- but isn't guaranteed any significant minutes. The Eagles' most pressing needs from their bigs are defense and rebounding, and junior Ousmane Barro, a 6-10 center, and senior forward Jamil Lott (as well as Hayward, if he's eligible) might be better options in those two fronts.
Bottom Line: Marquette's backcourt is going to be scary -- and entertaining to watch -- especially if McNeal's shooting-range improvement carries over to actual games. James is an NBA-level talent and Matthews, now healthy, could be on the verge of a breakout season. The Eagles still have a glaring lack of impact players in the post, though, and it remains to be seen whether they can 1) actually play fast enough to neutralize that size deficiency, 2) find a reliable, rebounding big man and 3) develop a clutch, long-range shooter to at least partially compensate for the loss of Novak. This team is capable of winning the Big East, but to put it ahead of Georgetown or Pitt right now -- before any of those questions are answered -- would be too much of a gamble.