Like most college basketball teams, Marquette dealt with adversity this year.
Injuries, suspensions and a pair of losses heading into the NCAA Tournament tested the Golden Eagles’ will as much as any team in the nation.
But through every rough stretch, Buzz’s group persevered thanks to a piece of string.
Specifically, thanks to sacrificing for a piece of string.
The Marquette basketball players chose the team’s theme, “sacrifice for the string,” at a weekend-long preseason retreat held by Williams and the rest of the coaching staff.
The team built chemistry by learning more about their teammates and, after choosing the theme, about what would be expected of them for the coming season.
Last fall, associate head coach Tony Benford called renowned sports psychologist Joseph Carr to speak with the team during the retreat. Carr had worked with athletes like LeBron James and Greg Oden and had spoken with college teams in the past.
During one of the sessions on the retreat, the team broke into groups to brainstorm possible phrases for the 2011 theme. After each group came up with their own ideas, they landed on sacrificing for the string.
“It’s about how everyone is in a tight-knitted family and every time somebody drops the string, it’s not as tight as it can be,” freshman Derrick Wilson said. “You have to help that person pick it up.”
Each player took hold of an actual piece of string, one the team kept with them all year long, and made a commitment for the rest of the year to keep the string as tight as possible.
By holding the string, each player committed to make individual sacrifices, overcome challenges and buy into what the coaching staff preached. Shirts were made with two “S’s” tied together by a piece of string.
“It’s a long season, and we go through a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” assistant coach Aki Collins said. “So any time you’re going through those lows, we always talk about sacrificing for the string. And they understand. A lot of times they’ll say it to themselves when they see things getting out of whack.”
It took the players a few days to understand what sacrificing for the string would accomplish later in the season, but the impact was felt immediately.
“Within 24 to 48 hours, they understood it,” Collins said. “They were excited about it and they did things on their own to reinforce some of the things we had learned and talked about in regards to sacrificing for the string.”
The Golden Eagles were tested in 2011, both with injuries to junior center Chris Otule and sophomore forward Davante Gardner, and when four players, including three starters, were suspended for a half against West Virginia.
Through every low and every time the string was dropped, someone else was there to pick it back up and keep it taut.
With a new theme every year, Collins said the coaching staff’s hope is that players take themes from previous years and build on it for the future.
“It’s something that one group can pass down to the next, and then when they get there, they can combine the two or three or four,” Collins said. “And it just becomes a way of life for those guys.”
The metaphor helped the Golden Eagles mentally, but there also was a direct effect on the court.
“If coach Buzz tells me to pick up 94-feet and my guy gets by me, I know my teammates are waiting in the back court to help me so I can recover,” junior guard Junior Cadougan said. “If Jae (Crowder) misses a shot, he knows Jamil (Wilson) is going to be boxing out the guy on the weak side so Vander (Blue) or Todd (Mayo) can get the rebound. We’re just sacrificing for each other.”
A 27-win season, a Sweet 16 appearance, two All-Americans and the Big East Player of the Year proved Marquette’s talent in 2011. But sophomore forward Jamil Wilson said none of it would have been possible without all 12 players buying into what sacrificing for the string meant to the team.
“The string is our team, and if someone lets down part of the string, our team is out of whack,” Wilson said. “It’s our life and death basically. It’s how we survive. If you hold your part of the string, we succeed or we don’t.”