Last season, the pieces didn't fit. So it's no wonder that the Marquette Golden Eagles became Conference USA's biggest puzzle. How else would you summarize the frustration of missing the NCAA tournament after a one-and-out stay at the Conference USA tournament -- a year after a Final Four appearance?
The Golden Eagles showed some pride by advancing to the NIT quarterfinals, but even that couldn't obscure the season's overriding theme. It was a disappointing exercise, which was played well below expectations.
Most disturbing was an overall lack of urgency. Plus, there was a step backward defensively -- moving away from a traditional Marquette strong point -- especially on the perimeter.
"We never responded to big wins and to tough losses as we should have," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "We never showed the ability to bounce back at the right times."
Crean said the Golden Eagles rededicated themselves during the off-season. They are determined to regain their status as a top-flight program in C-USA. There are always pitfalls and distractions -- just ask Crean, who fended off summertime rumors about his reported candidacy for the Ohio State job -- but it won't take much for Marquette to regain its swagger. The pieces seem to be there. They just need to fit.
FRONTCOURTIn the pivot, Marquette needs some reinforcements. It wouldn't be surprising for any (or all) of the newcomers -- Mike Kinsella, Ryan Amoroso or Ousmane Barro -- to assume prominent roles.
Forward Steve Novak continues to be a major asset. He's the league's best free throw shooter and a long-range threat who can't be ignored. When Marquette defeated Louisville 77-70 at Freedom Hall, ending the Cards' 16-game winning streak, it was Novak who led the way with 30 points, including 8-of-13 from 3-point range. If others can muster a more pronounced presence in the low post, it would only help Novak's game.
Senior Todd Townsend, who started every game in the Final Four season of 2002-03, saw his production and playing time take dramatic downturns.
Senior Marcus Jackson and junior Chris Grimm played sparingly last season, but there's room on the floor if their games improve.
BACKCOURTWith Dwyane Wade off to the NBA, Travis Diener took center stage. Diener became the first C-USA player to lead the league in both scoring (18.8) and assists (6.0) since Houston's Gee Gervin in '98-99.
Diener was held to single-digit scoring just once. Otherwise, he surpassed the 20-point mark 11 times and was at his best in the latter stages of C-USA play, when he averaged 23.6 points in nine games.
Marquette, of course, will be better served if another playmaker emerges in the backcourt, freeing Diener to work more in the offense. For now, though, Diener will float between roles. Already, he has shown the ability to be versatile, leading the team in scoring, assists, 3-pointers, 3-point percentage, steals, free throws made and minutes played.
After a slow start, sophomore Dameon Mason was as good as advertised. He improved as a scorer, averaging 10.7 points in league play, and showed he could create his own shot.
Junior Joe Chapman had an up-and-down season but was a much bigger factor in March. Crean hopes Brandon Bell, mostly a non-contributor in his first season, can become more of a factor at backup point guard.
FINAL ANALYSISIf there's a problem making the Final Four, it's this: You always want more. Anything less leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That was the no-win situation for Marquette last season.
Crean was more concerned with the manner of Marquette's defeats. They were ill-timed and sometimes uncharacteristic of a program built on disciplined performances. "Our guys really understand that they've got to get better at a lot of things," Crean said.
Consistency is one factor. Maturity is another. The shift from spot performer to key starter carries more responsibility, and some of Marquette's players struggled with that transition.
Diener will be the go-to guy, but he needs help. For Marquette to regain its special glow, everyone needs to contribute. The pieces need to fit.