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Postcard from Marquette

Guard-driven Marquette squad is a Big East darkhorse

Posted: Thursday October 19, 2006 12:34PM; Updated: Thursday October 19, 2006 1:45PM
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Wes Matthews missed a portion of last season with a stress fracture in his foot, but is back and healthy.
Wes Matthews missed a portion of last season with a stress fracture in his foot, but is back and healthy.
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MILWAUKEE -- Wendy's: The home of the 99-cent Super Value Menu, and for Wednesday and Wednesday only, the remote office of Marquette basketball.

It's 12:30 p.m. in the franchise on North Ave. and 7th Street, and Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean and his assistants, Jason Rabedeaux, Bennie Seltzer and Jerry Sichting, are at a corner table covered in Biggie-sized cups and legal-pad notes. They're mapping out a detailed plan of their team's sixth practice of the season, which would begin in about an hour at the on-campus Al McGuire Center. Crean, who last month signed a 10-year contract extension through 2016-17 at Marquette and likely received a raise from the $1.65 million he reportedly made two seasons ago, obviously has the means to patronize more classy brew-town establishments. On this occasion he opted to mix it up and call a meeting at a joint in a less-glamorous sector of the city -- and extended me an invitation.

He points out, jokingly, that by eating here he is "supporting the Big East," since this is one of more than 100 Wendy's owned by ex-Louisville Cardinal and Milwaukee Bucks star Junior Bridgeman. And the regular folks seem to appreciate the visit from the head of the team that finished a surprise fourth in the Big East last season; as we walk out, the counterwoman yells to him, "Win it all for us this year," and then proudly says to the customers at the head of her line, "That's coach Crean."

The practice they planned, which would turn out to be a three-and-a-half-hour marathon, involved enough running to kill off the calories from a week's worth of Wendy's No. 3s (the Classic Triple With Cheese Combo meals). See, the Eagles enter '06-07 with high expectations -- they're a consensus top-25 team and a dark-horse pick to win the league -- but they also have the challenge of adjusting their playing style to maximize the effectiveness of their troika of sophomore leaders in the backcourt. When you're piloted by three guards such as Dominic James (last year's Big East Rookie of the Year, and the point-man), Jerel McNeal (a fearless attacker) and Wes Matthews (a smooth, 6-foot-5 athlete), what you want to do, as Crean says, is "put a lot of pressure on our opponents with our fast break."

The Eagles ran to some extent in '05-06 (they ranked 58th in the nation in kenpom.com's tempo stats, and bowed out in the first round of the NCAAs) but did their share of fine dining on offense, using sets to free-up threes for sharpshooter Steve Novak, who averaged 17.5 points per game and attempted 259 trifectas. This season, somewhat apropos of Wednesday's Wendy's backdrop, will feature far more fast-food buckets. "Coach Crean wants us to have the best fast break in the country," said James, who averaged 15.3 points and 4.5 assists as a freshman. "We're going to have to win games by getting up and down and finding flaws in other teams' transition defense."

To that end, Crean ran plenty of frenetic drills in the ensuing workout. One involved three-man teams generating full-court buckets on five-second shot clocks -- a new feature for this year Crean said "is based on establishing a mindset of playing faster all the time." In the course of the entire practice, I never saw the shot clock set higher than 25 seconds; it's almost as if the last 10 clicks no longer exist in the Marquette world.

James said he and his teammates had been given DVDs over the summer containing historical footage of the 2000 Michigan State squad, which won the national title while Crean was an assistant under Tom Izzo; the 2003 Kansas team, which beat Marquette in the Final Four; and the 2005 North Carolina team, another national champ. The common thread? All had guards, either Mateen Cleaves, Kirk Hinrich or Raymond Felton, who knew how to push the pace and distribute the ball. And the two Roy Williams-coached teams averaged 82.7 and 88.0 points per game, respectively, a scoring stratosphere Crean would like this year's Eagles to enter.

"We really want to get into the mid-80s [in points per game]," he said. "If you look back to a couple of years ago, all the Final Four teams were 83 and above. Last year we were 75. The teams that play deep into the season can play different styles, but they've all scored a lot of points, and a lot of points off of their defense."

The reality is that the Eagles are going to have to win playing swift, small and aggressive in a league that has an abundance of talented bigs -- Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, Pitt's Aaron Gray and Villanova's Curtis Sumpter, to name a few. To do that, they'll also borrow from the template of the last Big East team to do it successfully: 'Nova. Although James was Marquette's clear floor general in '05-06, Crean wants his backcourt to play pressure D and operate like a three-headed point guard -- a la the roles that the Wildcats' Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi and Randy Foye had in their four-guard offense.

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