Grading Out the 2008 Marquette Golden Eagles: Wings
Jerel McNeal, 19.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists
It was going to be almost impossible for Jerel McNeal to live up to expectations when the season started, but like has done for the last four years, he surprised us once again. In a year with many ups and downs, the constant remained McNeal with his scoring presence, tenacity on defense, and overall team leadership.
He started the year very slow during non-conference play, and it almost seemed like he played to his competition. Wesley Matthews rushed out of the gate in Buzz Williams’ new system, but even though Jerel averaged just 17 points per game, no one panicked. While his game was not really struggling in the early portion of the season, it just wasn’t the take over mentality that the Golden Eagles had expected from the senior. All that changed once he took the court in conference play. He had 24 points in a huge win over Villanova on New Year’s Day and had that magical performance from long distance in the Cincinnati win, connecting on all seven three-pointers he took. After a 16 point performance against Rutgers (that Matthews really dominated), he would go on to score 20+ points in nine straight contests on his way to breaking George Thompson’s scoring record at Marquette University. McNeal also had a career high in assists with 4.5 and really improved his all around game, using his driving ability to open up perimeter jump shots.
As it was for every player on the Marquette team, the injury to Dominic James drastically changed McNeal’s play. When the senior point guard went down, McNeal knew it was going to be on him to keep the team focused off the court, as well as keeping them in games on the court. McNeal’s play really struggled to end the year after James went down, albeit against very good defenses in Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. Still, his shot towards the end of regulation against the Orange on senior day was the McNeal that Golden Eagles fans remembered and will definitely go down as one of his many memorable clutch shots.
In the NCAA Tournament, McNeal struggled against Utah State for much of the game, looking sluggish and tired. However, when Marquette went down six late in the game, a light must have went off in his head that this was do-or-die and it was on his shoulders to make sure his team would survive. He ended the game with just 14 points, but down six he connected on his next two shots and, along with Wesley Matthews’ bucket, put Marquette up for good in the game. In the second round, he was unstoppable and was the reason the game was close all the way up until the final buzzer. He went off for a career-high 30 points while making clutch free throws and deep three pointers all game. As he did all year, his three pointer at the end of the half was huge for Marquette, bringing them within 11 and giving them some momentum that they clearly used to open the second half.
There were times where McNeal looked very average in the year, mostly after the injury to James. Whether it was trying to do too much or try to compensate for what the team had lost, he looked out of sync to end the year, rightfully so. He was asked to basically take over the point guard role (in the sense of running the offense) while still being asked to put up 20 points every night and play lockdown defense. He will go down as Marquette’s leading scorer and one of the best to ever don the Marquette uniform, and this whole year was the MVP’s One Shining Moment. GRADE: A
Wesley Matthews, 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists
If there was ever an unsung hero of a team, Wesley Matthews described it perfectly. So much of what he did over the course of the year went semi-unnoticed because of the play of McNeal, James, and even Hayward. Still, it always seemed like the last thing Matthews wanted was praise and that flying under the radar suited him perfectly.
Matthews came out of the gates firing to start the year, averaging 26 points in the first three games and gave a preview of what was to come from the 6’4” senior in Buzz’s new offense. He was no longer just a bystander in the offense, going through the motions and taking set jump shots. Rather, he had the freedom to run the fast break and draw fouls, something he did better than anyone on the team.
He definitely played second fiddle to McNeal, but that did not mean that he underperformed in any sense of the word. If it weren’t for Dante Cunningham from Villanova, you can bet that Matthews would have taken home Most Improved Player in the Big East. While he did struggle after the James injury, he still continued to carry on and do his best to make sure the Golden Eagles didn’t break. He was the ultimate competitor, and at the same time was just another kid having fun playing basketball. He never tried to be bigger than the game and always let the flow of the game come to him. To show this, look no further than the Georgetown game in the Bradley Center. McNeal had been constant the whole game and Hayward had 14 points in the first half. With the game knotted up at 42 coming out of halftime, Matthews found his rythym and exploded for 23 points in the second half in a huge win for the Golden Eagles. He didn’t force shots or try to find attempts that weren’t there, but instead he waited for good shots and made them when he had them.
Matthews will be such a memorable face to Marquette’s legacy and his breakout season this year proved why. He was a force on the glass and played great defense against competition usually bigger than him. What he did with his opponent was take him off the dribble and draw fouls, which ended up giving him the all-time lead for free throws made in a Marquette jersey. It was a fitting end for him against Missouri, scoring 24 points and throwing down dunks that showed that he wasn’t going to give up until the final buzzer had gone off. GRADE: A-
Jimmy Butler, 5.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists
Butler was a junior college transfer from the same school Joe Fulce was from and not many people knew what to expect from the 6’6” sophomore. Early on, they thought they were getting a player not ready for the Big East and one that surely would not crack the rotation when the Golden Eagles got into the dog days of the season. Butler struggled mightily to start the year, looking lost on offense and slow on defense. The peak of his struggles came in the Villanova game late in the season when he fouled out playing very lazy defense, as well as missing his only shot from the field.
His performance against the now-Final Four bound Wildcats also prompted me to write “The Case for Jimmy Butler”, where I compared his performance this year against other players on the bench, as well as his month-by-month progression. Well he sure made me look good by exploding over the next two months to become one of Marquette’s key rotation players and first man off the bench.
He played extremely scrappy basketball, cleaning up the boards and being on the receiving end McNeal and Matthews drives to the hoop. His defense improved and he seemed to get faster as he got more comfortable while in the game. Every game, he would do something to show his improvement and got better as time went on. A 19 point performance against Villanova in the Big East Tournament capped off a great season in which he went 13-16 from the free throw line. On the year, he shot 76% from the stripe and 51% from the field.
Next year, he will be a key ingredient to a very young Marquette team. While he might not start, expect him to log 25 minutes a game and come in during key stretches in the game. If he can improve his jump shot he will be able to contribute at three positions (2, 3, and the 4). GRADE: B-
Joe Fulce, 1.4 points, 1.1 rebounds, 0.3 assists
Fulce showed a lot of promise early in the year before an injury sidelined in for quite some time. Despite big minutes in the Providence win, he did not get enough experience early in the year to crack the rotation. Next year, he will get more of a chance if he is able to stay healthy and should be in the rotation as Buzz Williams goes deep into his lineup. GRADE: D-
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