Underappreciated Marquette earning its place among hoops elite
Marquette has a long history of overachieving without much attention or fanfare
Few losses could be as devastating as NC State's blown 20-point lead against Duke
Winning has overshadowed depth concerns that could spell trouble for Kentucky
The video quickly went viral.
A few minutes after his team's one-point win at West Virginia Friday night, Marquette coach Buzz Williams waltzed to a few bars of John Denver's "Country Road" as he strolled across the court. While it appeared that Williams was taunting the Mountaineers' student section, he was merely savoring a beautiful moment as he made his way to the broadcast table for a postgame interview. When Williams realized the West Virginia students were angry, he acknowledged his mistake on the air -- "That's my fault," he said as he put on his headset -- and apologized profusely during his postgame news conference.
Williams was still awash with contrition when I spoke with him by telephone Sunday afternoon. "Please write this," he urged. "It was an emotional response that was very unprofessional. I was not trying to do anything disrespectful. It's not who I am and I wish I hadn't done it. It's unfortunate, and I'm sorry."
Williams' apology is classy, but what's really unfortunate is the way those few seconds overshadowed what had transpired during the two hours that preceded them. Marquette, which began the season undersized as usual, played on Friday night without its two best big men. Chris Otule, a 6-foot-11 junior center, suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 6, and Davante Gardner, a 6-8 sophomore forward, was sidelined because of a sprained knee. The Golden Eagles also played the first half sans three starters, who were being punished for violating team rules. A fourth player sat out the second half for the same reason. Moreover, the Eagles were on the road and facing a good team that desperately needed to boost its NCAA tournament hopes. And did I mention they were down by 15 points with 18 minutes to play?
With all of that going against them, the Golden Eagles still scraped out a one-point win. That, however, was not the only thing that inspired their coach's awkward two-step. Williams was likewise moved by the quiet, intimate words that senior guard Jae Crowder whispered into his ear after the final horn. "He hugged me and said, 'Coach, I love you. I'm so thankful you're here. I'll fight for you anywhere, anytime,'" Williams said. "I put my head in his chest and I was crying. It's why I got so emotional and danced. I mean, that's what all this is supposed to be about."
It's hard to find a more unlikely -- and more unnoticed -- story in college basketball this season than Marquette. The Golden Eagles are alone in second place in the Big East with a 13-3 record (24-5 overall), and their No. 8 ranking in this week's AP poll. Yet, they seem to be generating very little, well, buzz. Not that it's a problem. Beginning with the frenetic, bald, energetic, lousy dancer who leads the charge from the sidelines, this is a group of folks who have long been overachieving while being overlooked.
A perfect example is Crowder, the team's leading rebounder (7.6), second-leading scorer (17.4) and one of the most versatile defenders in the country. A 6-6 senior from Villa Rica, Ga., Crowder was, by his own admission, an overweight teenager who didn't get serious about basketball until he was a junior in high school. He was not recruited by a single college during his senior season. After graduating, Crowder played one year at South Georgia Tech Junior College in Americus, Ga., but after helping that school make its first appearance in the junior college national championships, Crowder learned that the college was not accredited. That forced him to transfer to Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, where he was eventually voted the NJCAA Player of the Year while leading that school to its first-ever national title.
At the start of Crowder's sophomore season, Howard's coach, who had met Buzz Williams some two decades before, reached out to him and told Buzz that he should recruit Crowder. Williams flew down for a game, but Crowder only played nine minutes because of foul trouble. When Crowder's coach apologized to Williams afterward, Williams told him there was no need. "I told the coach that was the absolute best game I could have come to," Williams said. "Jae was standing on the sideline the whole game waving a towel like he was a cheerleader. He was the first guy to half-court greeting the guys when they were on the way to the huddle. I watched his body language the entire time. It was obvious he was a great teammate."
At least Williams saw Crowder play those nine minutes. That's nine more than he saw of his current leading scorer, 6-2 senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom. A native of Raleigh, N.C., Johnson-Odom was a decent high school player, but his recruitment was cut short by a procedural error which prevented the NCAA's academic clearinghouse from declaring him eligible. That forced Johnson-Odom to spend one year in prep school and another at Hutchinson (Ks.) Community College, where he became a juco All-American. Now Johnson-Odom is on pace to be one of the top-10 scorers in Marquette history, even though he will only have played there for three seasons. Said Williams of his two leading scorers, "I don't think there's any way that anybody could have predicted their path from where they were in high school to where they are now."
Then again, Marquette is the place where a guy named Dwyane Wade went from being uninvited to either the Nike or adidas camps the summer before his senior year of high school to one of the top-10 players in the NBA. It's the place where a guy named Jimmy Butler went from being the 82nd-ranked high school player in the state of Texas to the first round of the NBA draft. Ironically, the only player currently on Marquette's roster who was a decorated high school player, 6-4 sophomore guard Vander Blue, has been deemed by many as a disappointment. Blue hasn't been nearly the scorer he was in high school -- he is making just 25.9 percent of his three-point attempts this season -- but he has endeared himself to his coach by grabbing 4.4 rebounds per game.
Williams knows that you need have a lot of talent to become a top-10 team. Still, when he hears his guys characterized as being "tough" and "scrappy," it is, he says, "the highest compliment that can be paid." Buzz explains: "A lot of guys aren't anointed as recruits, but that doesn't mean they're not as good or better than guys who are. I don't know that you can make a living based completely on those guys, but you do have to have a roster of players who have a lot of heart and who understand what your program is all about."
If the players had any doubt as to what the program is about, Williams erased it by issuing those suspensions for the West Virginia game. Williams would not disclose what they did to merit the punishment, other than to tell me that "it wasn't anything awful. They're all good kids. They broke a team policy, and that's the end of it." Moving forward, the larger concern is Gardner, who was originally projected to be out four weeks but is healing slowly. Gardner still hasn't gone through a full practice, and Williams doesn't anticipate that he will be ready in time for Wednesday's game at Cincinnati.
Still, when a team enters the final week of February ranked in the top-10, its fans usually expect it to have a realistic chance to make the Final Four. But can a team get there when the only player on its roster that is taller than 6-7 hasn't played in over a month? "I honestly don't know what to expect," Williams said. "All I know is we better be the hardest-playing team we can be and be fundamentally sound on every possession. If we do that, then we'll just add 'em up at the end and see where we're at."
It has taken longer than it should have, but Marquette has earned its place on center stage the hard way. Time to dance.
Could we be headed for another classic finish in the Ivy? Harvard's loss at home to Penn on Saturday dropped the Crimson into a tie for first place. Since this conference has no postseason tournament, that means Harvard could find itself in a one-game playoff for the championship for the second year in a row. If that happens, do whatever you need to do to watch. Last year's game was incredible: Princeton guard Douglas Davis hit a fallaway three-pointer from deep in the corner to win, 63-62.
I know the committee is only supposed to focus on this year's results and not history, but I have a theory: These are human beings in that room. So I have to believe (and hope) that they're going to find a way to get a second (and maybe even a third) team from the CAA into the field.
I'm surprised to learn that the Big East is considering adding Temple, because I had always heard that Villanova would do everything it could to prevent it. I thought that was shortsighted. Temple-Nova is already a great rivalry, but it would become even bigger if those were in the same league. Look at what being in the same conference did for Kansas and Missouri all those years.
It's hard to recall a more devastating loss than N.C. State's at Duke two weeks ago, when the Wolfpack blew a 20-point lead in Cameron. Had they been able to hang on, the Pack would have significantly strengthened their at-large resume. They've lost three straight since then, including a bubble-bursting overtime loss at Clemson on Saturday. For shame.
Purdue's win at Michigan is a perfect example of why the new wrinkle in ESPN's new Basketball Power Index is so faulty. The BPI takes into account missing players, which means Purdue's win would count a little less because Matt Painter dismissed Kelsey Barlow from the program. The actual selection committee, on the other hand, might recognize that the Boilermakers are potentially better without Barlow. Remember, folks, this is a very subjective exercise. Numbers can only dictate so much.
How does Pat Knight go from absolutely killing his seniors one game to talking about how proud he is of them three days later? Bad form, coach.
I can't remember a year when there were so many good candidates for National Coach of the Year. I've been on the Frank Haith train for most of the season, but I still haven't decided for sure.
Spare me the this-is-the-worst-bubble-ever complaints. This is only the worst bubble since last year. The bubble was never pretty even before we went to 37 at-large teams. It will get even less pretty when we go to 38 after Conference USA and the Mountain West merge, thereby eliminating an automatic qualifier. Can you imagine what the bubble would look like if the tourney had expanded to 96? Perish the thought.
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