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Hoping to avoid a repeat of last season's swoon, when the Golden Eagles dropped six of their final nine games and lost to Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, coach Tom Crean introduced a twist during preseason training: taekwondo workouts. "I wanted to do something that would make practices challenging," he says. His players were incredulous at first--"I thought he was playing with us," says junior guard Wesley Matthews, one of five returning starters--and then in pain. "There were definitely a couple of days when I woke up and said, 'My hips are killing me,' " junior guard Jerel McNeal says.
Once a week black belts lead the Golden Eagles through a series of exercises designed to increase flexibility, strengthen the core and quicken reflexes. Crean hopes faster hands make fewer miscues-- Matthews and McNeal combined to average more turnovers (3.21) than assists (2.92) last season--and more steals. Junior playmaker Dominic James already sees an increase in deflections: "We're turning up our pressure on defense and creating a lot of offense off our D."
The athletic James, who declared for the NBA draft last spring but withdrew his name after receiving a lukewarm reception at predraft workouts, will again be the focal point on offense despite hitting only 27.2% of his threes and 65.1% of his free throws. Marquette's depth up front, however, significantly thinned when 6' 7" freshman Trevor Mbakwe, who was expected to support center Ousmane Barro, sprained a ligament in his left knee, sidelining him for the season. Power forwards Lazar Hayward and Dan Fitzgerald will have to not only provide post defense but also use their quicker hands to snatch more rebounds; opponents outrebounded the size-challenged Golden Eagles by 2.1 per game in their 10 losses in 2006-07.
Dressed in white robes and yellow belts, the players unveiled their new martial arts skills to fans at Midnight Madness, when they took turns punching through wooden boards bearing Big East school logos. It was an impressive show, but the real question is, Can they grab boards as well as they break them?
Nov. 10 IUPUI (W 76-68)
Nov. 12 Utah Valley State