Marquette freshmen becoming more aggressive, comfortable

After a quiet debut in the opener, Marquette's vaunted freshmen trio came up big against Grambling State.

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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