Just how close is Buzz Williams to landing a star center?

(USA Today)

(USA Today)

With the final live July recruiting period having just begun, the Marquette coaching staff is again out and about on the recruiting trail, offering scholarships to potential commits who could shape the future of Marquette basketball. Today we’ll look at how Buzz Williams is playing the recruiting game perfectly when it comes to big men.

Reputation is earned in the collegiate landscape. Outside of an assistant (or the head coach himself) having connections to a high school or AAU program, it takes successes on the court, in the win column and on NBA draft night to build a roster worthy of contending for a national championship. And, without debate, the biggest accomplishment a coach can achieve on the recruiting trail is landing a prized big man.

Sure, coaches take fliers on big men based on size alone, and sometimes they work out (Davante Gardner) and sometimes they don’t (Youssoupha Mbao) but in the world of recruiting, which is full of hits and misses, there’s far less missing on those five-star power forwards and centers, who, because of their growth spurts at such a young age, are more likely to be filled out and ready to compete at a high level — Division I basketball, in this case — from Day 1. Not really groundbreaking insight, but it’s worth noting.

The perceived myth of a knock on Buzz Williams through his six recruiting classes has been the question of why he hasn’t brought in top-flight talent out of high school in the paint. He has received pledges from a pair of five-star guards in Vander Blue and Jajuan Johnson, while two others in the 2013 class — Duane Wilson and Deonte Burton — may wind up being worthy of such a rank.

But if we use 6-foot-8 as a benchmark for the term “big,” consider this: In the 2013 class there were 26 five-star recruits, based on Rivals.com’s rankings. Of those, nine were 6-foot-8 or taller, or 34.6 percent of the class. Of the 124 recruits who rounded out Rivals’ Top-150, just 31 stood at the threshold or above it, or 25 percent.

That class wasn’t an outlier, either. In the last five recruiting classes (2009 to 2013), 57 of the 129 five-star players have stood 6-foot-8 or taller, making up 44.1 percent of the list. Of the remaining 621 players in those collective five top-150 rankings, 177 were 6-foot-8 or taller, making up 28.5 percent of the group. Combining those two stats, players 6-foot-8 or taller have made up a little more than 31 percent of the Rivals Top 150 the last five seasons.

It’s not easy to find these players, and the majority of those bigs worth taking a gamble on are five-star players. Williams’ reputation of being able to recruit big hasn’t come in the five- or four-star level. Going back to reputation, Marquette’s trug big men when Williams took over the roster included a 6-foot-8 Dwight Burke, 6-foot-7 Pat Hazel and the center-by-default, 6-foot-6 Lazar Hayward. Not all that enticing for top-tiered forwards to look at.

So Williams continued to play the recruiting game. He took his chances with project big men while using the reputation of the Three Amigos — Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James — to recruit hard at the guard position. And he clearly did well there, while making the most of his forward/center situation. Here’s a list of the seven “bigs” — again, defined as taller than 6-foot-8 — Williams recruited, essentially, “on his own.”

BIGS

On the surface those numbers aren’t all that impressive but, remember, stellar bigs are few and far between, and a new head coach on a team known for everything BUT their bigs this was perhaps as Williams could have done.

And what he’s turned it into is now setting him up for future successes. Including the 6-foot-7 switchables — Steve Taylor was included in the initial rankings since he projects closer to a power forward than a perimeter forward — Williams has put together one of the best frontcourts in the country.

In 2013-’14 he’ll tout Chris Otule, a two-star center who came to Marquette under remarkably unique circumstances. Then there’s Davante Gardner, the former 305-pound center who had to wait for the top guys to pick their schools in 2009 before he landed on Marquette. Jamil Wilson came home to Milwaukee after committing to Oregon (ironically, over Marquette in 2009) as a top-30 recruit. And there’s Jameel McKay, who chose Williams and Marquette after seeing what Williams had done with junior-college transfers before him.

Of all Williams has done to reform Marquette’s roster over the past six seasons, his successes with Gardner, Otule and even Wilson may be most important.

When Paint Touches spoke with 2013 commit Jajuan Johnson in November, he noted that Williams has had plenty of success with lower-ranked recruits. If Williams could win with them — nothing but unranked, three-star bigs, in this case — imagine what would happen if Johnson, a top-40 recruit nationally, and others played under Williams’ tutelage.

“My ultimate goal is to get to the NBA, so I looked at who’s got the most players, and it was Buzz,” he told Paint Touches. “Looking at the type of players he got [to the NBA], he wasn’t getting high-talent guys [out of high school] there, so imagine what he would do with top-50-type players.”

Those comments are revealing. Recruits consider everything when picking their school, and they are more in-tune to what teams and coaches are doing with other recruiting classes — and how those recruits perform — than it seems. Coaches do their best to tell recruits this, too, and it’s a sure bet Williams and the staff are letting recruits know that a pair of once-were-nobodys — Otule and Gardner — are leading the way as seniors in their new conference.

And now that Williams has built his own two- and three-star recruits up to defensive stars and Sixth Men of the Year winners, he’s cashing in his chips, banking on his production in the frontcourt to lure some of the country’s best bigs in over the next few years.

In the 2014 class, Marquette has given scholarship offers to 6-foot-8 Kevon Looney (No. 9 overall), 6-foot-11 Myles Turner (10) and 6-foot-9 Goodluck Okobonoh (19). There are eight five-star big men in the 2014 class right now; Marquete has offered three of them. Five years ago that would have been unheard of.

In the 2015 class, Marquette has given scholarship offers to 6-foot-10 Diamond Stone (No. 4 overall) and Stephen Zimmerman (No. 7), two of the top four centers in the class. Again, that last sentence would have been laughable just a couple years ago.

Marquette has been in the race with premier bigs before (Joel Embiid, Quincy Miller) but never quite like this. It’s too soon to say whether Marquette has a legitimate shot or no shot with any of these players (Stone will be a race, Looney appears to have moved on, etc.) but just having his team in the race with some of the prized bigs in the country says something about how close he may be.

It may be that Williams takes what he created in his current bigs and grabs a four-star big or one of the other names not listed above. It may not be a blue-chipper — perhaps that will come in 2016 or 2017, when a four-star commit hears his name called in the NBA draft — but Williams is heading in the right direction. What was once thought of as a pipe dream — Marquette landing a five-star center — may not be so far off.

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