About 13 years ago, a young assistant at Northwestern State was asked what his ultimate coaching fantasy would be.
The 27-year-old responded: “As a Division I coach, my team wins the conference championship in a game televised by ESPN with all of the players’ families in the stands.”
That was Buzz Williams’ wildest dream just over a decade ago. Now with less hair but more pounds, that once-young assistant has an opportunity to make it a reality as Marquette faces St. John’s on Saturday on ESPN for at least a share of the Big East title .
Had you asked Buzz at the beginning of the year if his team had a chance for the crown he would have laughed at you. Had you asked him just two weeks ago he would have looked at you funny. Yet there he is, the man who has repeatedly said his team is no good, 40 minutes away from wearing the belt.
This is not just about Buzz Williams, though. As remarkable as his story may be, this is about Marquette: not the team, but the program.
Ranked No. 11 for most tournament appearances and No. 18 for most tournament wins, you would assume Marquette had a long and storied history of conference titles. Yet, as an independent up until 1988, most of its glory days didn’t result in conference titles.
As it stands, Marquette has only won two conference crowns, but both of those teams have stood the test of time to become an integral part of the Marquette lore.
Kevin O’Neill became Marquette’s first head coach to win a conference title in 1994, when his squad took the Great Midwest Conference title by going 10-2. That team would go on to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 17 years.
Tom Crean brought the next title, winning Conference USA on the last game with a 70-61 win at home over Cincinnati. That team would take it even farther than the Sweet 16, as Dwyane Wade led Marquette to the Final Four for the first time since 1977.
It’s been 10 years to the day since that last conference title was won. Think about the talent that has come and gone since then without getting even a sniff of the championship.
Diener and Novak didn’t crack the top 8 again in Conference USA. The Three Amigos never finished higher than fourth. The same can be said for Lazar and Jimmy who topped out at No. 5. DJO and Jae got the closest, finishing second last year, but they were 3 full games behind Syracuse.
That’s eight NBA players in the past decade alone. It goes to show just how difficult it actually is to put together three months of good to great basketball in order to be in contention.
Postseason accolades may garner most of the next year’s headlines, but it is much more impressive to be competitive 16 to 18 times over a few months than it is to heat up for two games in one weekend.
That is why when Buzz was asked all those years ago, he didn’t point to the NCAA Tourney, but to the conference title. He values everyday people and everyday players that grind night in and night out. His whole spiel about the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker highlights this perfectly. Anyone can get lucky and win a game, the same cannot be said of a regular season championship.
That is not to say luck doesn’t play a factor. Marquette was lucky to beat UConn on Jan. 1, relying on a 35-foot three from a 22 percent shooter in Junior Cadougan. Marquette was lucky Georgetowns’ Greg Whittington missed a free throw to send it to OT. Marquette was lucky to mirror games with two poor teams in USF and Seton Hall.
But by no means does luck account for all 13 victories. There are a lot of shots in empty gyms behinds those wins. There are a myriad of floor burns behind those wins. Most of all, if you were to pull back the curtain on those wins you’d see a team that has extracted every last ounce of heart to get where it is today.
A championship would take on even more added significance than usual as this is the last time the whole crew will be together for the Big East. There are no asterisks or footnotes yet. Syracuse, Pitt, UConn, Cincinnati and Louisville are still here.
The job is not done quite yet though. One victory stands between Marquette and history. The Golden Eagles will take the court in the most famous arena in the world, the MECCA of basketball, knowing 40 minutes is all that stand in the way of history.
Tomorrow is a big day for Vander Blue and Co. Tomorrow is a big day for Buzz Williams. Most of all, tomorrow is a big day for the Marquette program as a whole.