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Williams building his house with new pieces

Buzz Williams likes the foundation of the house he is building at Marquette. (Photo by A. Martina Ibanez-Baldor)

Buzz Williams is “building a house” at Marquette, and his structure is firmly in place following Sweet 16 appearances and 49 wins over the last two seasons.

And many are beginning to take note of that house Williams is constructing, and it’s apparent that the Golden Eagles have shed their “under-the-radar” label as Williams heads into his fifth season at the helm.

No longer are the Golden Eagles led by a man with little head coaching experience. His team is no longer made up of former unranked recruits and junior college transfers looking for new starts. When Marquette is still around on the weekend of the Big East Tournament, it’s no longer a nice story about an undersized team from Milwaukee. And those two straight regional semifinals are looking more like the real deal than a flash in the pan.

But Williams refuses to rest on the successes of his past teams. The underdog mentality will always be ingrained in both his player’s heads and his own, to keep the drive and determination of his team going year-to-year.

“As you perpetually do well or continue to have success, those levels bring new devils,” Williams said Friday at Marquette’s annual media day. “And how you handle those devils probably determine whether or not it can become cyclical.”

Marquette had the luxury last year of Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder to handle those rough times. But with both gone, Marquette will now rely on new faces to lead the roster into this year’s gauntlet.

Incoming transfer Trent Lockett, a graduate student from Arizona State, who Williams referred to as “a stud of a human being,” will help. As will senior Junior Cadougan and juniors Vander Blue, Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson. But Williams’ hope is that players take on leadership roles naturally that keep his culture of hard-nosed play to the point where, when seniors graduate, they’re just names being replaced by new ones.

“How all our guys respond, relative to our new team, will determine whether or not we can do it again. You have to answer that question every day,” Williams said. “You have to be accountable every day. Our role as an underdog is probably more because of my personality and my mentality than anything else.”

They will get that chance early. Williams and Marquette will face their toughest non-conference schedule in five seasons that includes matchups with Ohio State, Florida, Wisconsin, LSU, Butler, and potentially Texas and North Carolina in the Maui Invitational.

The program’s non-conference schedule has improved each year under Williams, in large part because of the team’s successes from the past. And while the tougher matchups will improve Marquette’s RPI by season’s end, something Williams noted, more important is the stress level put on the team early in the season to prepare them for the rigors of Big East travel and, hopefully, travels across the country during the NCAA Tournament.

Marquette will prepare for a consensus Top 10 team in Ohio State on Nov. 9, return home and have two days to prepare for two games (Colgate and Southeastern Louisiana) in three days before flying nine hours to Maui for a potential three-game stretch against Butler, North Carolina and Texas, all before Thanksgiving break.

“It’s really not the games, relative to who you’re playing,” Williams said. “It’s all the things that lead up to those games and the grind that it is on you emotionally and mentally.

“You hope that by doing that that it prepares you for the Big East. But maybe just as important, you hope it prepares you for something that you will encounter in the post-season as well. So is it the right thing or the wrong thing? For your coaching career record, it’s the wrong thing. For the development of who your team is, it’s probably the right thing.”

With such uncertainty of who will step up as leaders and key contributors following the loss of Crowder and Johnson-Odom, Williams said his team will need to improve on the defensive end, hit the offensive glass more frequently and decrease turnovers per game, noting that because of “how fast we’re going to play, we have to get a shot every possession.”

He worked on that himself during a busy offseason. In May Williams studied zone offense, where his team struggled mightily early in the season. In June it was press offense, where Marquette was baited into 26 turnovers in a March loss to Louisville in the Big East Tournament. And as he does every August, Williams studied ball-screen coverage, something Williams does to keep up with the changing times of collegiate basketball.

“I hope that I’ve gotten better,” Williams said. “I think time will tell as the season plays itself out, but I think that I’ve tried to prepare on things that I know the essence of the game will come down to always, and the guts of the game.”

And lucky for Williams, he was able to pass along all he learned during his offseason earlier than usual to his team. A new NCAA rule allowed Division-I coaches eight hours per week with their team. It wasn’t much, Williams said, but along with his two freshmen, Steve Taylor and Jamal Ferguson, getting more acclimated to the program, it helped a team looking for a new identity mesh before official practice began Saturday.

Williams told fans at Marquette Madness Friday night that “the Sweet 16’s not good enough anymore.” (Photo by A. Martina Ibanez-Baldor)

“It does give you an opportunity to be around them every day,” Williams said. “I think it allows them to stay in some sort of routine, academically and athletically, and I think it put us on a better slope once the school year started.”

Benefits from that head start allowed Williams to ramp up his already-rigorous Boot Camp sessions which he said, and his returning players unanimously agreed, was the toughest one yet. Aside from the numerous timed sprints beginning as early as 4:30 a.m., Williams added small wrinkles to the workouts to test the mental and emotional strength of his team.

That train of thought, Williams said, is to allow his teams to see everything out in the open. In his five seasons, Williams said he has never received one complaint about playing time or individual role, because Boot Camp lets each individual see who stepped up and, consequently, who took a step back before they ever step onto the court as a team.

“Our guys see everything before they even receive practice gear,” Williams said. “They know who they are collectively, and they know who they are individually. And I think sometimes less is more, and we don’t have to talk about it because it’s on display.”

What was on display Friday Night during Marquette Madness was a team oozing with talent and athleticism. Questions about who will step up and continue to build Marquette’s “house” may take time to be answered. But Williams said the one thing he knows for certain is that his team will always be the toughest and hardest-working team in the country.

“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,” Williams said.

“We’re in a different house. I like the house that we’re building and I like the people we’re building it with.”

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