Todd Mayo wasn’t sure he wanted to be at Marquette anymore.
After a rocky freshman season, his two closest mentors—Tony Benford (North Texas) and Aki Collins (Memphis) –were gone, and the shooting guard didn’t feel like his relationship with Buzz Williams was close enough to allow him to talk about his issues.
Mayo’s situation only worsened when, following Mayo’s late arrival to a summer weight lifting session, Williams suspended him indefinitely.
So Mayo packed his bags, leaving Milwaukee behind for Memphis, unsure if he’d ever be back.
But instead of falling farther apart from his coaches and teammates, Mayo’s three months away from the team brought the 6-foot-4 shooter closer, leaving the once-thought-to-be immature Mayo a changed man.
Mayo’s suspension was announced officially on June 29, culminating a freshman season where his attitude and work ethic had been questioned, and he even was suspended for the second half of Marquette’s contest at West Virginia.
“I didn’t know where I wanted to be,” Mayo said. “Aki, Benford, when those guys left, those were the guys I looked to, to talk to when I was going through the humps during the season. Me and Buzz really didn’t have a relationship. I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”
Mayo left Milwaukee an unsure player, and he wasn’t sure if it would get any better. One of his first stops was spending time with his parents and brother, O.J., who was also figuring out his future, as an NBA free agent.
Mayo didn’t lose any time on the court. He competed in daily workouts with his brother he described “like a Big East game.” The competitiveness O.J. had in those drills – he still hasn’t beaten big brother in 1-on-1 –stuck with Mayo, and he improved his game.
But the issue with Mayo wasn’t on the court. It never had been.
As a freshman, he averaged a modest 7.9 points per game and was third on the team with 31 3-pointers.
Instead, what Williams said Mayo needed to learn was that everything wasn’t going to be handed to him, as it is most highly-touted freshmen who enter Marquette. The problem was never the in-game Mayo; it was outside of the 40 minutes on the BMO Harris Bradley Center court Williams needed to change.
That acclimation was put in fast-forward before Mayo even arrived on campus as a freshman. The NCAA Clearinghouse did not clear Mayo’s transcripts until late August, and he was essentially thrown into the fire with no experience of what it would take to succeed at the Division-I level. At Marquette’s level.
“Jumping right into everything and I’m a freshman, you don’t know what to expect and you’re turning out to be a good player, and everybody wants to talk to you and everybody wants to judge you,” Mayo said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
What also hurt that progression was the path he had taken to Milwaukee. An unknown, mostly-unranked recruit playing in West Virginia, his last name carried more weight to most than his skills did.
But what ultimately took that bulls-eye off his back was what would put another one on him. After scoring in double-figures seven of Marquette’s first 10 games, helping him to shed the label of “O.J.’s brother,” he hit a shooting slump. And to those who only saw him as a player expected to produce, that put him right back under the microscope.
“[Freshmen] live in a haze because they’ve never had to do anything like this, and so no matter how talented they are there is an adjustment period that you cannot rush,” Williams said. “You can’t give them a pill and go, ‘OK, that’s over.’”
It was something Mayo struggled with while simultaneously trying to get over the shooting slump, perhaps faster than he needed to.
“I wish I would have known that it wasn’t always going to be good. I kind of knew it, but when it hit me it was hard to get over the hump,” Mayo said. “And sometimes you can’t get over the hump in a day. And you might not get over the hump in a week. It might take a month. I wish I had known that.”
But for all those who highlighted Mayo’s faults while overlooking his freshman status, his team was there, even if it was from more than 600 miles away.
Mayo texted and spoke with Buzz Williams every day, and Williams even came to visit his suspended player and his family. Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue and Jake Thomas, notably, also made calls to check up on their teammate.
At first he wasn’t sure if he should be making contact with the team. He thought he needed to be away from it all to truly understand why he had been sent away in the first place. But as most people outside of the program saw Mayo as troubled or simply O.J.’s little brother, the Marquette team knew where Mayo was coming from, and knew he needed the extra push to get over the edge.
“They know my past. They know how hard it is to be in my shoes, and they want me to do right,” Mayo said of his teammates. “And I think they saw that the things I do are gonna be looked at differently than if they did it, just because of my background and who my family is. So that’s one thing I really looked at and I applaud them, because they just understand me more than anyone.”
But even with all the support, Mayo still knew he needed to change.
Williams knew there was reason for the suspension, too. He had sent Joe Fulce, Maurice Acker, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder home during past summers, all with the same purpose: to realize what it meant to wear the Blue and Gold.
The same went for Mayo. Both he and Williams said there was nothing in particular that Mayo did wrong, just that he needed to realize how important and valuable his scholarship was.
“There there was no offense Todd did, other than him being a kid. ‘I’m supposed to get this.’ No you’re not. Carry your ass home,” Williams said. “I was talking to him every day. It was not punishment, but it was really healthy.”
More so, Williams knew Mayo’s realization of what it meant to play for him would improve their relationship because he had always been there for him.
“I knew (the suspension) had a big part to do with building a relationship, doing right and when you come back, to do right,” Mayo said. “Buzz let me know we’re here for you, and those coaches are gone but I’m here for you, I want to be here for you. I want to change your life.”
And Mayo is changed.
Williams lifted the suspension on Aug. 9 and, while he’ll play from behind for the second straight preseason, Mayo knows now what is expected of him. He also knows he can go to his coach’s office, something he avoided his first year.
Just three months ago, Mayo didn’t know where his lack of a relationship with Williams would take him. But one conversation with Mayo makes it apparent that his time away from the program helped and that he finally knows where he wants to be.
“Buzz is like a role model to me. I used to look up to my brother a lot, and now I look up to Buzz. He’s a real good Christian guy, and that has worn off on me. To be closer to God and to be dedicated in the books and off the court.”
That will soon be seen on the court, as well.