Marquette's latest Buzz inherits a mixed bag and a lot of guards
MILWAUKEE -- When I dropped in on Buzz Williams at Marquette last week, it was his 169th day on the job since being hired after Tom Crean left for Indiana. Buzz knew this off the top of his head because Buzz pays compulsive attention to detail, right down to the number of ice cubes he requested during our interview -- he asked that his assistant put six in his never-ending glass of sweetened ice tea.
Players say he'll hold meetings at peculiar times like 8:12, just so they'll pay attention enough to be on time. And sometimes Williams will kick them out of half-hour individual workouts, like the ones that were going on last week, about 13 minutes in if they aren't playing up to his standards. They'll have to come back later in the evening to finish the other 17 minutes; you only get four of those sessions a week, so, as Williams says, "You have to be as efficient as possible. You can't waste time."
Williams was still 45 days away from giving his his first postgame press conference as the Golden Eagles' head coach, but he's thought about that already, too. Amid all the game and practice DVDs he watches, obsessively, he likes to TiVo postgame remarks of pro coaches on ESPNews.
Pat Riley is his favorite in hoops ("I don't think he's trying to be a spin doctor -- I just think he's telling the truth," says Williams), but he actually prefers to study the NFL coaches. His favorites are the Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Packers' Mike McCarthy because he appreciates the intensity level of a 16-game season. "I've been [studying press conferences] my whole life," says Williams. "You always have to be learning." He won't review footage of his own remarks, though, because that would constitute wasting time.
When average college basketball fans see Williams on ESPNews for the first time this winter, it's unlikely they'll recognize him. He was hired on April 7, after having served nine months as a Crean assistant and emerging as a surprise leader for the gig when Marquette didn't make headway with candidates such as Washington State's Tony Bennett and Virginia Commonwealth's Anthony Grant, who were already head coaches.
Williams' anonymity level was off the charts. As senior guard Jerel McNeal said, "I had so many people calling me right after [Williams] got the job to ask, 'Who the hell is this guy?' And then I'd have to explain it to them: He grew up in Texas, was a head coach at New Orleans [in '06-07], coached at Texas A&M for a while ['04-06 as an assistant] and a few places before that [Colorado State, Northwestern State, Texas A&M-Kingsville and UT-Arlington]. But I still think most people don't know who he is."
One person who knows Williams well -- and has for quite some time -- is Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who first saw Williams on the recruiting trail in Texas while Williams was working for UT-Arlington and Gillispie was an assistant at Baylor in the mid-'90s. They were both recruiting junkies, and Williams, whose basketball career began in '92 as a juco manager at Navarro College (the place he got his nickname, for constantly buzzing around the gym), looked up to Gillispie. "He's from Texas, he's from a small town, he wasn't a player, he wasn't connected to any sort of program -- he just worked," Williams said of Gillispie. "I grew up wanting to be like him."
To further that desire, Williams -- who, if it wasn't evident yet, admits to being very "obsessive-compulsive about certain things" -- programmed his calendar as a Northwestern State assistant (in 1999) to remind him to call Gillispie (then an assistant at Tulsa) every 16 days. The purpose was so Williams could keep asking Gillispie, "What do I need to do to be more like you?"
They'd eventually work together at A&M, teaming up to recruit the heck out of the Lone Star State and lay the foundation for the Aggies' breakthrough to the NCAA tournament. Williams' recruiting reputation was, in large part, the reason he landed a Big East head-coaching job despite having only one year of head-coaching experience -- at UNO, a job he departed after, he claims, the university did not live up to promises of facility upgrades in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (There is still a pending lawsuit between him and the school, which involves the institution's alleged breach of contract and his $300,000 buyout clause.)
Marquette, which hired Crean in 1999 when he was an assistant at Michigan State, rolled the dice again, nine years later, on someone it knew could recruit at a Big East level -- and who it hopes can develop into a fine Big East coach.
Williams has already delivered on the recruiting end, lining up a 2009 class that includes three four-star players: Wisconsin state player of the year Jeronne Maymon, a 6-foot-6 small forward; and two elite prospects out of Texas, 5-11 point guard Junior Cadougan (from Humble) and 6-6 small forward Erik Williams (from Cypress). Those names, if Williams desires, can be written on the backs of the daily sheets in his custom-made notepads, which list calls, e-mails, letters and to-dos on the front, and have boxes for his next two recruiting classes' depth charts on the back. ("Coach Williams," says McNeal, "is definitely an over-organized person.")
While first-year coaches in major conferences tend to walk into steaming piles -- there has to be a reason for the job to open up, and it's usually because the previous coach was unimpressive -- Williams' depth chart for '08-09 is far more impressive than Crean's at Indiana, where just one player remains (seldom-used senior reserve Kyle Taber) from the previous season. Williams has the luxury of a top-20 team with three senior backcourt starters in McNeal, a Big East Player of the Year candidate, Dominic James and Wes Matthews. That trio was was just one Brook Lopez-leaner away from reaching the Sweet 16 last March, and would be disappointed with anything less than a trip past the NCAA tournament's first weekend in '09.
Williams, meanwhile, is doing his best to limit expectations, ranking-wise, by pointing out that his schedule includes Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgetown and UConn, among others. "I'm very grateful for what I inherited," he says. "But how many wins does that translate to? I don't know. Being respectful of all the other new head coaches this year, I don't know how many of them are in the Big East."
One thing Williams does know is that his team can't play the same style it did under Crean last season. This is because Golden Eagles are now even smaller, after losing three valuable players 6-7 or taller: staring center Ousmane Barro and forward Dan Fitzgerald, who graduated, and sophomore-to-be Trevor Mbakwe, who surprisingly left the team this August to transfer to a juco in Florida. Therefore, says Williams, "There will be times when we have five guards on the floor." Those would be McNeal, Matthews, James, David Cubillan and Maurice Acker, the latter three all less than 6 feet tall.
Going to extreme small-ball -- and four- and five-guard sets -- is one way to lengthen games, by upping the number of possessions and taking advantage of Marquette's quickness in a league filled with talented post players, such as Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and UConn's Hasheem Thabeet. Marquette ranked 118th in the nation (and sixth in the Big East) in adjusted tempo last year, at 68.1 possessions per game, and could likely move into the 70s next season. The faster the better, in Williams' opinion, because "as the game gets shorter, our size dilemma gets revealed."
Williams' first season at Marquette is likely to be defined by constant battles between speed and size. His backcourt brigade will be taking on the Big East's beasts. And he, an unknown Lilliputian with a fierce attention to detail, will be taking on coaching legends such as Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Rick Pitino. When Crean waged war with those giants, he used Diet Pepsi as his trademark fuel, stashing cans on the end of the scorer's table. Buzz, in place of that, will have his sweet tea. With a very specific amount of ice.