Buzz Williams won’t admit his team’s good. Not even after 21 wins, 12 in the Big East and 25 straight at home. So good luck getting him to admit the truth about himself: he’s one hell of a basketball coach.
Following Marquette’s 72-64 win over No. 21 Notre Dame–a win that moved the Golden Eagles to 12-4, tied for second with Louisville–Williams cited two preseason facts about his team: 1. the coaches selected his team to finish seventh in the Big East and 2. no one from his team was named to the preseason All-Big East first, second or third team.
The undervaluing of Williams’ clubs–whether it be due to unknown junior college players, being in Milwaukee, etc.–has almost become an annual routine.
But as easy as those story lines have been to create, there was reasoning behind them prior to the start of this season.
Marquette was picked seventh in the Big East because it lost the conference’s second leading scorer and its player of the year. There was no proven leadership in a conference where such a trait is essential just to stay above water. When the year started Marquette wasn’t as good as Syracuse or Louisville. Or Pittsburgh. Or Notre Dame. Or Cincinnati. Or Georgetown. Or Pittsburgh. Bleed as much blue and gold as you’d like, Williams’ squad wasn’t unfairly polled.
No Golden Eagle made the preseason all-conference teams because none of Williams’ 13 scholarship athletes were worthy of such a spot. Williams entered the season with a roster full of role players, including an ineligible shooting guard, a former Division III undersized shooter to replace him, a senior transfer who had never played faster than a snail’s pace half way across the country, and a host of other “No. 2′s” who had two All-Americans to bail them out when the going got tough. And now that “tough” fell on their shoulders.
But Williams came to work every day.
“You show up and go to work and earn a day’s pay,” Williams said. “A lot of people don’t want to go to work and want to get paid for working. And I think for us, this year, to be able to show up every day and be accountable for work, to be 12-4 after preseason seventh, after zero preseason all-conference players, I respect that.”
The fifth-year head coach in Milwaukee didn’t build this year’s team around a star player. In October not only did he refuse to answer who Marquette’s leader would be for the upcoming season, he admitted there wouldn’t be one.
Instead, Williams built his team around a 1o-man rotation with scenario-specific substitutions, ran plays to get his team precious paint touches and never let off the pedal on perfecting in-game sequences. He’d bench his senior point guard because the sophomore was playing better. Davante Gardner would fight through needing a breather so Marquette could get him one more touch on offense. Todd Mayo, despite fresh legs, would sit because freshman Steve Taylor had earned it. The examples are countless.
He didn’t have any 3-point shooters. His team is still one of the worst deep-ball shooters in the country in terms of percentage. So he built his team to work inside-out, creating a monster of a 290-pound forward in Davante Gardner and stuck with a one-eyed center, Chris Otule, who’s playing better than anyone–himself included–ever thought possible.
He worked on a lineup that included both those “centers” inside and waited to use it until the three biggest front courts in the conference came to the Bradley Center. When he unleashed it, there was no answer. Three wins later, opponents are surely scrambling to figure out what Marquette has turned into.
Last year Marquette played at more than 71 possessions per game, the 16th fastest pace in the country. Just one year later, Williams has analyzed and understood his personnel and cut the team’s pace down by seven possessions to 64.5, the 246th quickest tempo. The players don’t mold to the system. Williams molds his system to his players.
Eight different players played double-digit minutes in Saturday’s win. Behind the number-crunching, stat-analyzing basketball freak in Williams, this team has bought into its individual roles AND learned how make it help the team down to the smallest detail. Practices starting at 7:17 a.m. and buses leaving at 3:42 p.m. will do that.
“I hope that our issues in our next two road games and however many neutral site games that we play, I hope that the issue is me trying to figure out specific mismatches, how we’re gonna attack, how we’re gonna play,” Williams said. Because when all 10 of our guys show up we’re able to do that.”
As much as Williams loves his numbers, his most critical coaching tool may be the tutelage that can’t be seen in a box score. A Chris Otule seal for a cutter. A Trent Lockett ball-screen denial. A Vander Blue deflection. An extra pass from Junior Cadougan to make a good possession a great one.
Two years ago Marquette limped to a 9-9 record in the Big East before unleashing the switchable in Jimmy Butler on Xavier and Syracuse to reach the Sweet 16. That was considered Williams’ finest coaching performance at Marquette. But sometimes teams get lucky in the Tournament to advance.
There’s no luck involved 28 games in.
Williams will have a tough time winning Big East Coach of the Year. He doesn’t have the unofficial required story line like Georgetown’s John Thompson III or Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie have.
But Thompson has future NBA Lottery pick Otto Porter. Ollie has the best backcourt in the conference–maybe the country–in Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier. Williams has talent to be sure, but more than that he has a group of players who pooled their talents together and came to work every day.
There’s a handful of talented players, but there’s no superstar.
“There’s not one thing that you can say. Last year everyone would have said it’s D.J. and Jae. Well what are you gonna say this year? Which guy are you gonna say? But it’s not D.J. and Jae, and it’s not Junior and Trent. It’s everybody.”
Everybody has contributed to this unexpected run, but they have done so because they bought into what the guy in charge was selling.
Even if he won’t admit it.