The 2008-2009 Marquette Golden Eagles are a thing of the past, losing to the Missouri Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament this past Sunday.
In a three part segment, I will break down each position and hand out grades based on last year’s performance for each individual player. Because Marquette really plays a 3-guard, 2-forward lineup, the three positions will be broken down as such: Guards, Wings and Forwards/Post Players.
First up is the guard position and the players being graded will be Dominic James, Maurice Acker, David Cubillan and Rob Frozena.
Dominic James, PG, 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists
James was enjoying his best defensive season and most efficient offensive season when his season abruptly ended against Connecticut with a broken foot…or so we thought. James made an incredible return for the second round of the NCAA Tournament and, while his box score line was not fantastic, the fact that he played revealed perfectly the determination that he showed this year and has always had.
Offensively, James started the year off with a completely different mindset than he had ever taken at Marquette, becoming a pass first point guard that Buzz Williams needed in his run n’ gun offense.
James wound up averaging 9.9 shots per game on the year, well below his 3-year average of 12.5 shots per game. Instead, he realized that he had three fantastic scoring threats in Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, and Lazar Hayward and he found them early and often, leading to his average of five assists per game.
He also took care of the ball much better, averaging 1.9 turnovers on the year, compared to his 3-year average of 2.5. That says a lot about a guy who wound up taking less shots and became a pass first point guard, yet had the fewest turnovers of his career.
Because of these two factors, his assist-to-turnover ratio was 2.67, good for third in the Big East and 13th in the country. But James’ new style of play did not mean he wasn’t able to hit the big shot, as seen by his 3-pointer against NC State with 0.4 seconds left.
On the other side of the ball, James was an absolute monster on defense. Not only did he lead the team in steals at 2.1 per game, but he also brought his fouls per game down as well. His ability to create turnovers in games was key for Marquette’s style and led to many fast break opportunities in transition.
He recorded a steal in all but three of the games he played in and had games of six and seven steals. Two plays that stick out in my mind about James’ play on defense was against West Virginia when the Mountaineers had just come out of a timeout to stop a Marquette run, and James pick pocketed Darryl Bryant (I believe it was him) as soon as he took his first dribble and took it in for an easy layup.
The second was against Seton Hall early in the second half. James was staring a three-on-one break right in the face, but he timed it beautifully and blocked an attempted layup, secured the rebound, took it the length of the court before dishing to an open Wesley Matthews for a layup. It’s plays like those that make him so unforgettable and so fun to watch.
James gave you a little bit of everything from frustration to elated joy, and from crushing moments like his injury to UConn to mass hysteria like his return in the tournament. The numbers next to his name in the box score might have been down, but the final score at the top of it was usually in big part to due James and was the reason he was arguably the most valuable player to Marquette’s success this year. GRADE: B+
Maurice Acker, PG, 2.8 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists
I am sure that if you asked Maurice Acker how his year was going before the Connecticut game, he would have told you that he was enjoying coming off the bench, spotting Dominic James and coming in for his defense.
Well, five minutes into the game, his role and importance went from 12 minutes a game to give James a breather to 30 minutes a game to finish off what his senior point guard never got to do.
For the majority of the year offensively (pre-James injury), Acker was not asked to do much as he never took more than six shots in a game. Outside of the Presbyterian game in which he recorded ten assists, he never had more than four in a game and was more just a passer in the offense that looked for Matthews and McNeal to drive.
However, after the injury to James his status on the team, especially on offense, changed. His shots per game went from 2.28 to 4.45 after the injury and his assists per game went from 1.5 to 2.9.
Acker was clearly a downgrade from the injured James, but without him Marquette’s back court would have been a mess. He came in to make six of seven free throws against a Wisconsin team where every point mattered and hit three 3-pointers in the furious rally against Villanova to highlight his offensive plays of the year.
While his offensive numbers went down and for a few games he looked too bad to put in even for defense, Acker straightened things out and ended the year nicely on offense. Even more than his numbers, his importance on offense was huge and he gets a passing grade for that.
Acker made his money on defense, the reason he came into most games at certain situations. The one game that no one will forget Acker for was against Notre Dame’s Kyle McAlarney, when the junior shut down one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters throughout the whole second half. McAlarney finished the game with nine points on 3-12 shooting and 1-6 from downtown, and it was Acker’s denial defense that really threw off the flow of the game for the Fighting Irish.
While his job of running the offense was important in James’ absence, almost just as important was replacing the defense that James brought every game. Acker struggled somewhat on defense against the much bigger competition but was always pesky and made it tough on opponents, forcing them to take jumpers by not being able to drive by him.
Overall, Acker’s presence in the lineup was as important as anyone else’s and, like James, the box score might not have shown it but he stepped into a role that no one expected him to succeed in, and he did just fine. GRADE: B-
David Cubillan, SG, 1.6 points, 0.5 rebounds, 0.7 assists
For whatever reason, David Cubillan was not part of Marquette’s success this year and did not fit into the rotation much.
This in turn led to the Venezuelan being off rhythm in any spot duty that he did get. Much like Acker, however, his role did change somewhat when Dominic James went down with a broken left foot and he filled in nicely.
Offensively, “Cubi” had always been known for having a decent outside jump shot, but that was about it. That could have been one of the reasons why he failed to see the court this year. Post-James injury, his role changed from spot duty to Acker’s former role of 11-12 minute stints per game, playing lock-down defense and taking care of the ball on offense.
Hopefully next year he will come back healthy and ready to contribute to the team, although with a lot of talented guards coming in, playing time may be scarce again. GRADE: C-
Rob Frozena, SG, 0.4 points, 0.6 rebounds, 0.0 assists
Frozena had a much improved year, picking up his first field goal of the year and pulling down seven boards on the year. His free throw percentage took a dip but he still entertained the crowd with his late-game sub-ins and will look to do more of the same next year. GRADE: D+
For the first six categories, 17 of the last 19 national champs have fallen under ALL SIX prerequisites.
1. Play in a power conference
Obviously the Huskies fall under this category, and not only do they play in the Big East, but it’s the same league that brought a record three teams as one seeds to the tournament and has a record five teams in the Sweet 16.
If Notre Dame and Georgetown had met expectations, this league could have been in the argument for best conference of all time.
Still, UConn has faced the best of the best this year and despite two losses to Pittsburgh, the Huskies beat Louisville on the road by 17 and have wins over Syracuse and Marquette and Villanova.
Playing in the Big East has prepped them for any challenges they may face against other teams. This category also takes Gonzaga, Memphis, and Xavier out of the running for winning it all.
2. Make the tournament the prior year
Once again, UConn meets the requirement as they made the tournament as a five seed last year. Yes, they lost to San Diego State in the first round, but they were a much younger and much less mature team then.
I remember watching them at an ESPN Zone last year and they just didn’t seem to have the swagger that they sport this year. It is obvious they are much more comfortable this year, having more experience and all.
3. Have a coach with at least five visits to the NCAA Tournament
Hmm, will 20 visits do? Jim Calhoun, who picked up his 800th win this year, has been to the big dance 20 times and has won the whole thing twice. He has been in just about every big game situation that you can think of.
His record of 801-339 is unbelievable and, heck, he took Northeastern to five dances! Aside from maybe the NFL, I can’t think of another sport where a head coach is as valuable, and Calhoun does such a great job at it.
Not only does he bring in talent, but he uses it to the best of his ability and it turn creates national champions. Definitely book UConn in on this category.
4. Average 77 or more points per game in the regular season
“Defense wins championships” might be the cliche, but when you get down to the Elite Eight and Final Four, everyone can play defense. What wins you the championship is your ability to score and the Huskies can do that.
Known for their tight defense, UConn has scored 103 and 92 points in each of their games and shot 52 percent and 58 percent from the field in their victories.
While the competition was not very deep, they have easily fared the best out of all the 1 seeds and unlike the other top seeds, they haven’t had a close game. They average 78.5 points on the season and while this is barely over the clip, that’s all you need to be.
5. Win your games by a +10 margin in the regular season
This is the part where defense comes into play and the Huskies pass the test again, outscoring their opponents by 13.5 points.
Defensively, the Huskies have arguably the best defender in Hasheem Thabeet and great on the ball defenders in A.J. Price and the unheralded Jeff Adrien.
UConn played a great regular season, only being within ten points 14 times, with four of those being losses. While still having the scoring margin, UConn is great at closing out games when they are close (save the Big East Tournament).
6. Be seeded 1-4 in the NCAA Tournament
Clearly UConn has it here and, unlike last year, the one seed has given them some confidence that all one seeds should have.
Sure, having it is like having a bulls-eye on the front of your team’s uniform as everyone wants to take you down, but it is definitely an intimidation factor and gives the Huskies a little extra swagger in their step.
The next three categories are based off of my own research that I wrote on a few weeks ago. I’ll leave the link after the intro, but basically I went back and looked at the last 10 tournament winners (opposed to the last 19 in categories 1-6) and found individual stats that make winners. Here they are.
7. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70 percent. If free throw percentage is under 70 percent, points + assists must equal at least 20.
A.J. Price fits the bill in this category as his points and assists add up to 17.9 and he just gets over the free throw mark. But more importantly than stats, Price is “that point guard” that you want to have in the tournament.
Being a senior is huge (just ask Marquette) for team spirit and having a sense of direction on the court.
Price is putting up Dwyane Wade-like numbers in the tournament thus far, posting 23.5 points, 5.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Once again, the competition has been weak but Price has dominated.
He will be the key on offense and has done an excellent job up to this point. Once again, UConn puts in another category.
8. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 52 percent.
An easy one here for the Huskies as they actually have two players that fall under this range in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien. Thabeet quietly puts up 14 points a game while shooting 65 percent from the field.
Not so quiet are his 13 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game that absolutely anchor the UConn defense and make it what it is. The non-stat that everyone talks about is his ability to alter shots and make the paint a place no one wants to come into when playing the Huskies.
His counterpart in the front court is Jeff Adrien who, if he played on most other teams in the nation, would be appreciated so much more. He averages 14 points and ten rebounds per game and shoots 60 percent from the field and works harder in the paint than anybody I have seen play this year.
The front court will be so important for UConn the rest of the way in the tournament, both on offense drawing defenders, and on defense in not allowing points in the paint.
9. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have two of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
The last qualification for a tournament champion is also the last one that UConn falls under. They are tied with North Carolina, Villanova, and Pittsburgh for the oldest starting lineup and this experience is something that will carry them.
They are not relying on young, skilled players (other than Kemba Walker), but rather experience and chemistry that they built up from time playing with each other. Also, the determination that seniors Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price will have with the “win or go home” mentality will push this team to greatness.
Breaking It All Down
When I look at this Connecticut team and how they have progressed all year, even when they lost Dyson, I see a team that can go all the way on skill, hustle, smarts, and coaching. Sure, the top dogs are still out there and this is one of the best Sweet 16’s that the tournament has ever seen.
However, with Price leading the way along with excellent contributions from Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker in Dyson’s absence, this team is starting to click. Adrien and Thabeet will clearly be key in their success, and when it’s all said and done, all these things will equate to a national championship in Connecticut.