Fired up: Defense commits to making stops

Buzz Williams’ unique basketball vocabulary the past five years has made the phrase “paint touches” and the words “turkeys” and “switchables” famous within the Marquette basketball circle. After Wednesday night’s performance, a 69-62 win over Seton Hall, it’s time to add “fire” to that list.

Marquette’s defense is playing as well as it has all season, and for that matter since Williams took over as a seemingly offensive-minded coach ready to run from the opening tip to the final buzzer. The defensive numbers have improved, and along with that comes sequences when the Golden Eagle defense finds itself guarding opponents with 10 or less on the shot clock.

And as soon as that shock clock hits 10, Williams, assistant coaches and players on the bench immediately begin shouting out “fire” until the opponent shoots.

It’s code for Marquette to ramp up its defense, to make the team aware that the shot clock is winding down and to be aggressive on the perimeter as the opponent sets up its final run at a shot attempt.

The use of the word originated last year in Madison, when Williams and the assistant coaches game-planned for how to guard Wisconsin’s unique offense. Given the number of ball screens — Williams’ most coveted area of defense against opponents — the Badgers set, Marquette’s defense was going to guard point guard Jordan Taylor different in the first 25 seconds of the shot clock than they did in the final 10 seconds.

Assistant Brad Autry recommended using the word “fire” to let the defense know to switch the scheme, rather than using the standard color change the team usually used to switch defenses on the fly. It worked against Wisconsin, as Taylor committed a career-high five turnovers in a 61-54 Marquette win.

Thus began the phrase the Marquette sideline has screamed — quite literally — from the sidelines to ramp up defensive pressure ever since.

Jamil Wilson sees a definite improvement in Marquette's defense, and the numbers agree.

Jamil Wilson sees a definite improvement in Marquette’s defense, and the numbers agree.

“It’s amazing that when we say fire, our guys understand that this is what’s going on,” Williams said after the game. “And I think that was critical for that particular win (Wisconsin last year), but it’s been very helpful from that point forward.”

Marquette is allowing a shade over 63 points per game in four Big East matchups, but the more indicative stat is that they have allowed just 0.97 points per possession in those contests. That number is the best since 2008-2009, when the Three Amigos and Lazar Hayward locked up Cincinnati (84-50 win) and West Virginia (75-53 win) in their second and fourth conference matchups, respectively. The Golden Eagles have struggled at times offensively, but the defensive numbers have meant wins in close games. Part of that, as redshirt junior Jamil Wilson alluded to last night, is due to Williams’ commitment to defense in practice.

Along with the “fire” call and tracking “turkeys” — three defensive stops in a row — the Golden Eagles play a unique game of 5-on-5 in practice that doesn’t keep track of points, but rather two consecutive clean stops, to determine the winner.

“You’ve got to get a rebound or you’ve got to get a steal or you’ve got to make a team turn it over,” Wilson said of “scoring” in the pick-up games. “If a team gets a tipped ball or a rebound it doesn’t count.”

Twelve players not focused on putting the ball in the basket during a session of practice may seem counter-productive as it relates to then doing so in a game, but defensive prowess is quickly becoming the identity of the Golden Eagles. The offensive numbers are down, but the wins continue to pile in.

Vander Blue, considered one of Marquette’s best defenders, even added a new accomplishment to his resume — taking his first career charge in 88 collegiate games. Williams hopped up and sat down on the scorer’s table with both hands in the air to applaud his junior guard, who has improved his scoring in 2012-’13 but showed he’s still there to make a difference on the defensive end.

But even Blue is not the only one who’s buying in: it’s the entire team. For Williams to have the ability to use 11 different players in a tightly-contested conference game — including nine different players logging at least 11 minutes — is a testament to how he wants his team to play when they don’t have the ball.

Quick and constant rotations in-and-out of the lineups may take away the rhythm some players need to score, but it keeps fresh legs on the court to play team defense and wear down opponents on that end of the floor.

The cliche used too often in sports is that a team “knows each other” and has “chemistry” that allows the rest of the group to help out an individual. But Wilson pointed to specific examples that show a team where eight of its nine core players have played together for at least one season — and the ninth is an experienced senior — is paying off on defense.

Vander Blue drew his first charge in 88 collegiate games, a testament to Marquette's dedication on defense.

Vander Blue drew his first charge in 88 collegiate games, a testament to Marquette’s dedication on defense.

“We do it so much in practice, and that’s where you improve everything, that’s where you learn everything, that’s where you jell as a team. Everyone knows everyone and that’s the beauty of it,” Wilson said, “because if Davante (Gardner) is on defense with two minutes left and you can see he’s winded, everyone on the floor knows that, ‘Hey, Davante’s gonna be tired so we might have to swing just a little bit more’ or Chris, the same thing.

“But as simple as that: we know each other so that if we can look at another person and tell that this is not right, or this person’s really going, help them out, that’s what makes us good as a team,” he added.

That commitment to practice has led to a disciplined unit ready to buckle down for 40 minutes and mask some of its offensive issues with stifling defense.

“I think we have been really good at playing to the scouting report over the last four games,” Williams said. “I think our staff, we’ve kind of simplified some of the things we’ve done in preparation.”

Whatever those simplifications have been, they’re working. And that will mean plenty more “fire” calls in the future, just the way Williams wants.

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