Strotman: Buzz building a family at Marquette

Buzz Williams has built the Marquette brand around the structure of his "house."

Buzz Williams has built the Marquette brand around the structure of his “house.”

For six seasons Marquette coach Buzz Williams has made himself an analogy aficionado, and perhaps the one he has spoken most passionately about occurred at last year’s media day.

When asked how Williams was going to replace Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder and the conference’s second-leading scorer, Darius Johnson-Odom, the one-of-a-kind storyteller went to work.

“Every team is a house, and we all live in that house. And when the season’s over, that house goes on the market. You can’t live in it again,” he said last October. “We’re in a different house [this year]. I like the house that we’re building and I like the people we’re building it with.”

That house analogy came up in conversation multiple times over the course of the season. Williams noting during conference play that the season had been a “hard-ass build,” and Jamil Wilson admitted the Golden Eagles weren’t building a mansion but, nonetheless, the house was being built and would stand on a foundation of hard work and perseverance.

So while Williams and the 2013-14 Marquette Golden Eagles will need to “move out” of the house that last year’s Elite Eight appearance, regular-season conference title and 26 wins built, what’s becoming clear is the people who wind up “living” in that house are as close-knit a family as there is in college basketball.

Every Division I team is founded on a culture, a brand that opposing coaches, local and national media and prospective recruits understand to be the factors that make up what the program is about. It doesn’t take investigative reporting or even keeping a consistent tab on the beat to know that a program such as Kentucky is built on instant success, the quickest path to the NBA while compiling high-major talent to compete for a national championship. Head to Michigan State and you’re going to rebound with a tenacity unlike any other school while playing smart, efficient basketball on the offensive end. Wisconsin certainly has a unique brand of its own, while schools such as Duke and North Carolina are going to play relatively similar every year while using the name across the front of their uniform as instance confidence and swagger. It comes with the territory and, in the healthiest of programs, is a positive indicator of success.

And while it’s not necessarily a groundbreaking insight, Williams’ Marquette recruits have spoken the truth about the brand of basketball they observed before making their decision on where to play college basketball, and it falls directly in line with the analogy Williams made a year ago. In their own words, players want to help build the house.

I first noticed the trend in 2012 when speaking with Steve Taylor, who earlier that month committed to Marquette as the top prospect in Illinois, a three-star recruit from the esteemed Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. When interviewing a commit, the first question I always ask is, “Why Marquette? And why Buzz Williams?”

Anyone who knows even the smallest bit of information about Marquette knows that kind of open-ended question can yield plenty of answers. Williams gets the most out of his players. They emphasize their guards, running whenever possible but also slowing down the ball to play through their big men. “Switchables” are going to play multiple positions, leaving more freedom for players to emphasize and exploit their talents at different spots on the floor.

But Taylor, a three-time state champion in Illinois, took a different route when asked that question.

“Why Marquette? And why Buzz Williams?”

“It felt like it was real,” Taylor told Paint Touches. “[Buzz is] a cool coach with all his players. He’s real with them. He pushes them and he’s tough, but he loves them afterward.”

The 2013 class is Williams’ most heralded since he took over six seasons ago, and the rankings, the “stars” connected to each player and the dozens of YouTube videos and highlight reels prove there’s reason to be excited about the talent coming in. Yet, when asked that standard, open-ended question to each of the four recruits — I didn’t get the chance to interview Deonte Burton — that same theme Taylor echoed the prior year again rose to the surface.

“Why Marquette? And why Buzz Williams?”

Duane Wilson: “The main reason that made me go to Marquette was because of coach Buzz. I just really like his attitude and the way he gets the best out of his players all the time, and they play hard. He’s not all about basketball. He wants to make his players into a man.”

Jameel McKay: “(Buzz) told me a different side other than basketball, and I felt like he cared. Actually, I know that he cared. He showed me things and he proved things that no other coach in the country could.”

John Dawson: “[Buzz] told [my family] about how he lived and what he believed in,” Dawson said, referring to his deeply-rooted faith. “That was a big plus for me, having somebody that believes with me and didn’t degrade me for it.”

Jajuan Johnson: “It was the real passion about what they do. It wasn’t about basketball; It was about life. They want me to be more than a basketball player. They wanted to talk about life and how they’ve changed other kids.”

All those comments are telling, and like it was from Taylor in 2012 to the 2013 class, Marquette’s last two commitments — Sandy Cohen not included — preached family and togetherness as the main reason for choosing the Golden Eagles.

Malek Harris: “They were all so cool and are a family. And that’s the biggest thing: I want to be a family. I don’t want to have any guys that I butt heads with, because we’re all out there fighting for the same goal.”

Nick Noskowiak: “My first impression of Buzz was it’s about so much more than basketball. He’s a father figure to a lot of these guys, and he’s such a good guy, such a forthcoming, straightforward guy who will tell you the truth.”

Williams’ pitch undoubtedly includes basketball and how a recruit can help Marquette on the court. After all, these kids are coming to play on the hardwood and, 99 times out of 100, have the ultimate goal of progressing through college to have a chance at playing professionally. All the above players at one point mentioned how Williams was going to help them succeed on the court: Harris was going to see time inside and out; Wilson was told he’d be able to improve on his half-court offense; Williams told McKay he could add muscle to McKay’s frame to get him ready for Big East basketball. Marquette has plenty more to offer than just a family atmosphere, but there’ no denying where it begins.

And Williams certainly isn’t on his own in caring about his players. It would take nothing more than a quick Google search to find dozens of recent players who committed because of the way their future head coaches cared about them and the way their future teammates have become a family.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find another coach in the country who, over the last three recruiting classes, has had seven commitments each say, before anything else, that the main reason they picked their school was because of the way their coach cared. Before mentioning the Jordan shoes, playing in Madison Square Garden or having the chance to play deep into March, these players saw camaraderie like they didn’t see anywhere else during their recruiting process.

This particular brand isn’t for everyone. Just like Kentucky doesn’t suit some of the top players in the country, or the Wisconsin culture isn’t fast-paced enough for others, Williams’ brand isn’t what every player wants most. And not every player enters the Marquette system looking for what Williams has to offer, but just about every player becomes part of that system by the time they leave.

With a brand-new team under his belt, it’s again time for the Marquette construction team to get back to work building a house that will compete for the ultimate prize, a national championship. And if his own players’ comments are any indication, whenever that house is built there again will be a true family living under it.

“Why Marquette? And why Buzz Williams?”

Because he may be building a house, but he’s making a home.

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  1. Sandy Cohen’s jump from anonymity to Marquette | Paint Touches - August 1, 2013

    […] Not to mention the whole family aspect Mark brilliantly described earlier this week. […]

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