Last year was not an easy one for Buzz Williams and Marquette as injuries and other issues cost him depth. The team was forever forging a new identity.
So how did Marquette manage to go 14-4 in the Big East, finishing second, and advance to the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season with a 27-8 record?
Jae Crowder, the Big East Player of the Year, and Darius Johnson-Odom had more than a little to do with it. And now they are both gone, earning NBA paychecks, leaving Williams to figure out how to replace their combined 35.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Those numbers represent 47.7 and 33 percent of the team's totals, respectively, from a year ago.
It's a challenge that Williams has excelled at during his six previous seasons at Marquette, the last five as head coach.
"Every team is a house," Williams said. "We all live in that house and when the season's over, that house goes on the market and you can't live in it again. They were pretty impressive and you can argue that they were maybe the best (combination) of guys that's been here in a long time but relative to who replaces them and how that plays out, nobody knows that. We're in a different house."
Williams has a strong foundation for this project, starting with point guard Junior Cadougan, who averaged 6.3 points and 5.4 assists in 28.6 minutes per game. The 6-foot-1 native of Toronto was effective behind Johnson-Odom, but will need to find a way to reduce his team-leading 90 turnovers from a year ago.
"Things happened last year and I'm over that," Cadougan said. "I'm more mature now. I've been playing three years and I'm ready. I have to limit the turnovers, we need every possession."
There is a lot of potential in the supporting cast, headlined by guard Vander Blue. A highly regarded recruit from Madison, Blue has evolved slowly at Marquette and in 35 games as a sophomore, averaged 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds. Todd Mayo and Jamil Wilson saw significant playing time last season, combining for 14.9 points per game, and will be counted upon to take an expanded role this year.
In the paint, what was a major liability a year ago could turn into one of the Golden Eagles' biggest strengths. Marquette opens camp with two solid post players in Chris Otule and Davante Gardner.
Otule, a starter last season, played in just eight games due to a torn ACL suffered in the opening minutes of Marquette's 79-77 victory over Washington in early December. Gardner stepped in and was impressive, but was limited after a knee injury in January.
"Davante and Chris are probably two of the better 5's that have ever been on the same roster because they're so different as players," Williams said. "The dynamic of those two guys is pretty good. I'd like to play a season with both of them healthy."
A wild card could be senior Trent Lockett, who transferred to Marquette after three standout seasons at Arizona State. The Sun Devils' leading scorer a year ago, the 6-foot-5 Lockett averaged 13 points a game and shot at least 50 percent from the field in the last two seasons.
There are pieces in place, but Golden Eagles aren't counting on any one player to jump in and make up for what they lost in Crowder and Johnson-Odom.
"You never know who's going to step up. We had our individual workouts over the summer and you could see that guys have improved their games," Cadougan said. "You can't really point to one person who's going to score points, we just have to play as a team and see what works out."
Williams will find out quickly how good his new-look team is: The season opener on Nov. 9 is against No. 4 Ohio State and the non-conference schedule includes games against No. 10 Florida and No. 23 Wisconsin.
The Golden Eagles will be without Williams for the Big East opener, Jan. 1 against Connecticut, due to a one-game suspension levied by athletic director Larry Williams for recruiting violations.
"We're playing a much more difficult schedule than we've ever played so I think we'll find out who we are quicker than we've found out in the past," Williams said.