Can Buzz Williams and Marquette crash Big East's last dance?
NEW YORK -- In the final days of the Big East as we know it -- a time for much reminiscing and lamentation before realignment ruins it all -- three teams are tied for the regular-season title. The No. 1 seed in the conference tournament-slash-farewell party at Madison Square Garden went to Georgetown, whose coach, John Thompson III, is the scion of 1980s Hoya Paranoia. The No. 2 seed went to Louisville, whose coach, Rick Pitino, took Providence to the Final Four in 1987 and led the Cardinals there last season. Both men are Big East royalty, and if either of their teams run the table this weekend, it will be hailed as a fitting coda.
Then there is the other co-champ, No. 3-seeded Marquette, whose coach, Buzz Williams, grew up in a 2,500-person town in rural northeast Texas, with three channels on his family television. To him, the great Syracuse-Georgetown bouts were distant transmissions that occasionally appeared on CBS. He has no coaching ties to the East Coast, having clawed his way into the profession through junior-college apprenticeships in Texas and Oklahoma, and D-I and II assistant gigs in Texas and Louisiana. There is a real chance that the last great Big East tournament could be won by the antithesis of a classic Big Easter.
"I'm definitely the bastard of this league," Williams said while scouting a game at the Garden on Tuesday. "And rightfully so. There's no way you could look at my career path and think any different."
Whereas Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, in a Wednesday press-conference soliloquy, talked about coming to the various versions of the Garden for 50 years, Williams did not set foot in the building until February 2008, as a 35-year-old Marquette assistant. He described his arrival in New York as "country gone to heaven" -- until, that is, the Golden Eagles de-boarded their team bus in the underbelly of the hallowed arena.
"It stinks, it's nasty, there are guys compacting trash, everybody's smoking, and it smells like old food," Williams recalled. "And then you have to ride a freight elevator with 30 people for about six minutes to get up to the floor. I'm thinking, 'What in the hell? This place can't be that good.'"
The college hoops world was asking what-in-the-hell questions of its own a few months later, when Tom Crean left for Indiana and Marquette handed the reins to Williams. His head-coaching résumé consisted of one season at the University of New Orleans that was followed by a contentious resignation. Yet Williams led his first Golden Eagles team into the top 10 of the AP poll -- only to have point guard Dominic James break his foot in late February, and the team go on to lose six of its final eight games. Who knows what they might have done at full-strength?
The team Williams has this season is far from his most talented, but it may be his best coaching job. After losing his two senior stars from 2011-12, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, to the NBA Draft, Williams took a team that was picked seventh in the Big East preseason poll and somehow guided it to a share of the league title. That was clinched Saturday, at of all places, the Garden, in dramatic fashion: Tied with St. John's in the final seconds of overtime, junior shooting guard Vander Blue drove the lane and hit a high-banking layup at the buzzer over the nation's best shot-blocker, Chris Obekpa.
The cumulative circumstances -- the buzzer-beater, the against-the-odds Big East title, the setting -- overwhelmed Williams. He went to the postgame press conference and explained, in a hoarse drawl, that he was "emotionally bankrupt."
Three days later, he was back at the Garden, for the purpose of scouting an awful, 9 p.m. play-in game between No. 14-seeded DePaul and No. 11 Rutgers, who combined for seven Big East wins and had a minuscule chance of actually advancing to face the double-bye-holding Golden Eagles. But Williams, who is obsessive about game-preparation, was taking detailed notes on a legal pad. (When asked about this, Marquette's deputy athletic director, Mike Broeker, shrugged and said, "He can't help himself.") During stoppages in play, Williams dipped Copenhagen, posed for pictures with fans, briefly became fascinated with a kid's iPhone cover that made it resemble a vintage Nintendo Game Boy, bobbed his head to a few lines of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," and quoted many arcane stats about his team.
Here's a number, and this is crazy: Marquette ranks 320th nationally in three-point shooting -- at a cringe-worthy 29.9 percent -- yet still has the most efficient offense in Big East play.
"How good do you have to be from an efficiency standpoint for those stats to be true?" Williams said. "It's almost mathematically impossible."
What they've done is dominate the offensive glass (they're the Big East leader in offensive rebounding percentage, at 38.4), focus heavily on getting the ball in the paint (Williams wants a paint-touch on 72 percent of possessions) and, as a byproduct of that, generate scores of free-throw attempts (they're No. 2 in the league in free-throw rate). They also happen to shoot 53.1 percent on their twos, which leads the Big East.
Big men Chris Otule (65.7 percent) and Davante Gardner (58.9) are hyper-accurate from inside the arc, and a recent study by Marquette blog Paint Touches revealed Blue to be the second-most efficient mid-range shooter in the country. Williams likes to call these shots "wood twos."
"Vander has worked at it so much," Williams said, "that he's confident he can get to a wood two by using his explosiveness [off the dribble]. And he knows when to pull up before the help comes."
On Saturday against St. John's, Blue released his buzzer-beater from just outside the right edge of the college lane line -- a wood-two bank shot, just a fraction of an inch beyond Obekpa's reach. After piling on Blue, the Golden Eagles remained on the Garden court to hoist their Big East championship trophy in front of a near-empty arena. The East Coast spotlight that day had been on Syracuse-Georgetown in Washington, and in his press conference, Williams said he thought ESPN, which was televising the Marquette game, may not have known that his team was playing for a share of the title. He wondered why he hadn't heard anyone say that the Golden Eagles had won as many games -- 28 -- as anyone in the league over the past two seasons.
"Nobody says that," he complained. "Nobody."
Marquette had just earned its first-ever Big East championship, and Williams felt that it was not being paid enough attention. Starting Thursday, the bastard and his afterthoughts get the big stage -- in front of a full Madison Square Garden, in the last dance of the greatest basketball conference to ever fall apart. A historically appropriate script would call for a Thompson, Boeheim or Pitino as champion, but if Williams' Golden Eagles -- who've never even reached a Big East tourney final -- close this thing down? That, truly, would be country gone to heaven.