Marquette freshmen becoming more aggressive, comfortable

MILWAUKEE — Anything done against Grambling State has to be
taken with a grain of salt, but Marquette’s heralded freshman class looked a
whole lot better in game number two.

After combining for three points in the opener against Southern,
the trio of Deonte Burton, Jajuan Johnson and John Dawson produced 28 points,
10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals in Tuesday night’s 114-71 victory.

Leading the way was Burton, the most physically ready of the
four freshman, with 14 points and six rebounds. 

“They were lower, a lot lower,” Burton said. “I
felt more comfortable in playing in the system, and it showed.”

Burton was aggressive from the minute he checked in against
Grambling, looking for his shot, creating offense with the ball in his hands
and crashing the offensive glass.

At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Burton has the athleticism to
jump out of the gym and the strength to compete in the paint. That’s what makes
the Milwaukee Vincent High School product the most prepared of Marquette’s
freshman.

Burton’s athleticism was on full display Tuesday when he
soared well above the rim to catch and throw down a lob pass from Derrick
Wilson with one hand.

“His body can endure,” said coach Buzz Williams.
“If you think about the guys, regardless of classification, that have had
success in our league early, typically it’s because their body can endure the
pounding that you take.”

Burton admitted nerves held him back against Southern, and
credited his increased aggressiveness to being more comfortable in the
system.   

“I think he has really good instincts, but your
instincts can’t be revealed unless you are playing really hard,” Williams
said. “He has really good instincts; he’s struggling figuring out how hard
you have to play.

“He understands how hard you have to play, he wants to
play really hard, but he wants to take a break every fourth possession and you
can’t. Once he can muster the emotion and willpower to play hard every
possession, you’ll see his instincts more and more.”

Where exactly Burton fits into Marquette’s rotation remains
a mystery, as the Golden Eagles have a handful of players with an opportunity
to seize playing time. Having a big night against Grambling is one thing, doing
it against Ohio State on Saturday would be another.

Nonetheless, Burton, and all of the unproven players, needed
a night like Tuesday before taking on a monstrous challenge against the
Buckeyes.

“It helps my confidence,” Burton said. “I
know I can produce (now), so it helps my confidence a lot.”

If the aggressive Burton comes to play against the Buckeyes,
he’ll force Williams to put him on the court.

“He has a little bit of Jae Crowder in which I don’t
really know what’s going on, but I feel real comfortable with the ball in my
hands,” Williams said of Burton. “And I may screw up the play that
you drew up, but my instincts are going to dominate his game.

“I love guys like that.”

Burton wasn’t the only freshman to play well Tuesday, as
highly-touted guard Jajuan Johnson broke through for 12 points after being held
scoreless in the opener.

All 12 of Johnson’s points against Grambling came in the
second half, as the first shot in seemed to lift a ton of bricks off his back.
At media day, Williams singled out Johnson as one of the best performers in the
team’s boot camp.

That may have put too much pressure on Johnson, as some
expected him to step into the starting lineup and score in bunches right away.

“His talent ceiling is really, really high,”
Williams said. “But how hard you have to play and how strong you have to
be and your body has to be to endure how we play, sometimes only time can
improve that.

“Was he better (against Grambling State) than he was against
Southern? Yes. Was he better because he finally made a shot and finally came to
life? We can’t allow for offensive sensitivity. Like, Jajuan, you may not get a
shot but you still have to play really hard.”

With fellow freshman Duane Wilson still out with a fractured
leg, point guard John Dawson got a chance to play 20 minutes against Grambling.
Dawson scored just two points but he had four rebounds and six assists,
including a couple of nice no-look dishes for easy buckets in transition. 

“I thought John played really well,” Williams
said. “I think John can help our team, I just don’t know exactly how much
because we only have two games to sample it by. He was way better than he was
on Friday.”

Taylor comes on: It wasn’t just freshmen who had nerves to
shake in the season opener. Sophomore Steve Taylor Jr. had been in the starting
lineup for the first time in his career against Southern, and the results were
forgettable.

Taylor bounced back from being held scoreless in 15 minutes
against Southern to post his first-career double-double Tuesday, with career
highs of 16 points and 11 rebounds.

“The first game, I just had to let that go,”
Taylor said. “I can’t live by what happened the last game. I was just ready
for this game.

“I felt really good today. I don’t know why, but when I
got up this morning I just felt like I was ready to go.”

Taylor showed glimpses of his talent during his freshman
season, but was held back from summer workouts due to a planned surgery to
remove a benign growth that had existed in his right knee for numerous
years.

Admittedly not back to 100 percent quite yet, Taylor was
pleased with how the knee has responded after two games.

“It’s holding up pretty good,” Taylor said. “I
just have to keep getting treatment. I can’t stop doing what I have to do to
get my leg stronger.

“It was hard for me to sit on the side all summer
watching the guys work out. Being that I’m back and almost 100 percent, it
makes me happy.”

Thomas finds his stroke: Senior guard Jake Thomas can be a
valuable weapon for Marquette, but the Golden Eagles need him to do what he
does best: make shots.

Sounds simple, but Thomas fell into a deep slump last year
and lost his confidence along the way. He didn’t play much down the stretch and
hadn’t made a shot since converting a four-point play against Syracuse on Feb.
25.

After initially looking to transfer this offseason, Thomas
has been in Marquette’s starting lineup for its first two games, but missed all
three of his shot attempts and both his 3-point attempts against Southern.

The Golden Eagles needed Thomas to hit a couple of
confidence-boosting shots against Grambling, and he did just that. After
missing his first 3-point attempt, Thomas hit three of his next four and
finished with 11 points.

Thomas averaged close to three 3-pointers made per game in
his two seasons at South Dakota, shooting 44.1 percent from beyond the arc in
the 2009-10 season. That’s exactly the kind of production Marquette needs from
him on a nightly basis.

“(Thomas) needs to be on (the opposing team’s) scouting
report,” Williams said. “’Hey, that guy right there? He shoots. That guy right
there? When he shoots, he scores.’

“We need that. That spaces the floor even more. Just make
shots.”

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