Team preview: Marquette

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

There are many times in the life of a program that isn't considered one of the nation's annual powerhouses that a great epoch comes along and then ends abruptly. A star player or a collection of special talents takes the lead and lifts the team to rarely reached heights.

After that upward cycle runs its course, however, it's tough to come close to it again. The resources aren't there. The recruiting base isn't sufficient. The tradition doesn't allow for the kind of recognition necessary. Injuries. Bad luck. Locusts. For whatever reason, the magical run is left to the memory, and its participants are forever lionized in the memories of fans and during halftime celebrations every five years.

That could have happened at Marquette, when Dwyane Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. It was an amazing accomplishment for a school that hadn't been to that level since the '77 team won it all. That's how it goes at Marquette. The relatively small (11,000 enrollment) Catholic school from Milwaukee had Al McGuire as its patron saint but not enough power and influence to be a mighty force on a regular basis. Wade's influence and talent were enough to lift the school near the mountaintop, but he left after the season, and Marquette was left to bask in the light of what he did.

Only that's not how it played out. Coach Tom Crean didn't get the Golden Eagles back to the Final Four, but Marquette didn't disappear, either. In the three years since Wade's departure, Crean's teams have won 58 games and kept the momentum going.

Were the school still a member of Conference USA, this would have been remarkable enough. But Marquette moved into the Big East last year, as part of the league's push to legitimize its football aggregation while pushing its hoop status to the top of the heap. It was a huge step, one many thought would require a long period of adjustment, especially after life in C-USA, which afforded several soft stops in between the slugfests with Cincinnati, Memphis and Louisville.

Instead, Marquette finished fourth last year, piling up 10 wins and leading the way for the Conference USA expatriates. Even more impressive was the Golden Eagle M.O. Marquette relied on a perimeter-based attack that had a 6-10 bomber as its fulcrum and a supporting cast that featured a freshman backcourt. No wonder many people were picking the Eagles for a spot in the second division.

The key has been that Marquette has been able to understand that depth is as important as talent. Teams that have a couple good players may be able to make a run in a lesser league, but in the Big East, there has to be more than that. That's a big reason last year was so good and why the Eagles can look at 2006-07 and see a real shot at contention for the conference title.

"The first couple recruiting classes when we had Dwyane here, we were recruiting backups for him," Crean said. "When he was ready to leave, we had personnel problems, because we didn't have people with the ability to produce in the Big East. It makes you realize you have to be two-deep at every position to challenge in this league."

Marquette can't point to a roster with 10 all-league candidates, but it does have that kind of depth on this year's roster. Of the 11 scholarship players (a 12th, Ball State transfer Maurice Acker is not eligible this year) 10 will be counted on for significant minutes, and the 11th has a shot to make his mark. Although the Golden Eagles need interior scoring and better rebounding (Marquette had a -0.1 margin last year), there are candidates for work and improvement. That's enough to make Crean think this year can be another highly productive one.

"I love our attitude," he said. "Our players are improving all the time. I look out there and it hits me how young we are. The guards are getting a lot of credit for what they did as freshmen and what people project them to do this year, but there have been a lot of peaks and valleys. We need people to assume more of a leadership role and more of a go-to role.

"If we have an unselfish team, and the three sophomores all play like point guards, and if the big guys rebound better, we'll have a good team."

Those "three sophomores" are big reasons people are paying attention to Marquette this season. Guards Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews all showed last year they have the talent to be versatile parts of the team equation, and each could become standouts in the Big East. Beginning a team with guards of that caliber helps anybody succeed. None is perfect, as Crean is quick to point out. But having last year's Big East Rookie of the Year (James), another guard who averaged 11.4 points and was an all-Rookie Team choice (McNeal) and a third who was starting before an injury and became an extremely valuable sixth man (Matthews) is a pretty good starting point.

Rebounding remains a concern. So does free-throw shooting. Not that Marquette had trouble at the line. Nope, the Eagles made 73.2 percent of their tries. It was getting to the line that was bothersome. Marquette shot only 17.7 free throws per game, ninth-best in the Big East. That has to improve, too.

Think about it, though. Marquette has the potential to unleash a versatile crop of three guards, backed up by freshman bulldog David Cubillian, and a five-man frontcourt that has yet to emerge as a reliable group but has depth and potential, on a Big East that features several rebuilding teams.

The Golden Eagles can't be expecting another trip to the Final Four, but with the pieces they have on hand, continued success is almost guaranteed. Not bad for a school that's supposed to show up on the national radar only once in a while.