The origin of paint touches under Buzz Williams

(Courtesy: Marquette Athletics)

Buzz Williams affinity for paint touches has a very humble origin.  (Courtesy: Marquette Athletics)

This is final installment of an exclusive six-part series documenting how Marquette head coach Buzz Williams has grown since he took over the helm in 2008.

Part I (Sept. 9): Four dusty corners: Where it all began
Part II (Sept. 16): Bringing order to a chaotic life, one day at a time

Part III (Sept. 24): Buzz Williams: The caring ‘monster’
Part IV (Sept. 30): With Buzz Williams, it’s not what, but why
Part V (Oct. 8): JUCO transfers come full circle for Buzz Williams

Buzz Williams keeps track of how many days he’s been employed as Marquette’s head basketball coach. It’s at 2016, as of publication date, to be exact. It’s not because he’s paranoid of losing it or boastful of his ever-growing tenure; he simply has an affinity for numbers as they relate to his life.

You can call him a stathead, to use an ugly phrase, but that doesn’t quite encompass his relationship with statistics. Williams has a mind that is rarely turned off. In fact it became a condition that had him seek medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic in 2010, when his health was deteriorating and sleep was harder to come by than a 5-star big man at Marquette.

Although that condition is under control now, Williams’ mind is still in a cycle of never-ending wind sprints during the day, with a schedule more apt for a Fortune 500 CEO than a college coach. Stats are his way of digesting sophisticated, complex games into bite-size pieces.

“I think where I’ve gotten better is that a lot of it just solves my chaotic mind,” Williams told Paint Touches. “I was doing I guess what you would call advanced stuff before it was called advanced.”

That’s why it was no surprise to learn that Marquette became one of the first college teams in the nation to adopt the SportVU system, a system of high-speed, wide-angle cameras that track every motion of every player, referee and even the basketball on the court to produce nearly limitless data sets.

You want to know how many cuts Jamil Wilson made in the first half? Done. Curious about Todd Mayo’s speed in transition from the arc to the baseline? Easy. There’s too much data to even fully comprehend there, and it makes the Synergy system look like an abacus.  Just what Buzz Williams needed for his stat fix.

There’s one other reason why SportVU will be a perfect fit for the program: Paint touches.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Marquette vs Syracuse

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously it takes the Marquette staff less time than it would an outside party — as it’s their job — but the tedious work remains a chore, and an imprecise one at that. Does it count as a paint touch if a player slams home a putback dunk while in the air. What about when Vander Blue dunks from just outside the paint? Is one foot enough? Give ten people the film and you’re bound to get ten different tallies — here is our tally from last season. Wave goodbye to that with SportVU, as Williams won’t just have a precise measurement of the number of paint touches, but who did it, how long they did it and where exactly they did it. It’s revolutionary.

The funniest part of it all is, it was never meant to be this scientific formula that it has become — and as you will find out, the numbers are jaw dropping in their predictive power. To get to the bottom of the story, we asked Williams himself where in his years of watching basketball did he come up with 49 paint touches as the measurement of success for his team?

“When I got the job here, our (center) was Dwight Burke. (He was) 6-6, terrible. We had to get it to the paint. Jerel McNeal was going to take bad shots. Wesley Matthews wanted to prove he was a better player than Jerel McNeal. Dominic James couldn’t shoot, so he had to get it to the paint. We would play red-light, green light. The light is red until the ball touches the paint. When the ball touched the paint, then it’s green. That’s literally how it started, the little kid game. It’s just evolved and evolved.”

No mad scientist formula. No secrets passed down by brilliant minds. No real stats. Just a lack of big men and some players with a quick trigger.

Staggered at the simplicity of something that has become so complex, we had to check with someone who had been in every practice and every film review since Williams started at Marquette. Jamie McNeilly, the current Student-Athlete Development Specialist for the Golden Eagles, fit the mold.

It’s true.

“It started with trying to get guys to take unselfish shots,” McNeilly told Paint Touches, verifying Williams’ recollection. “Coach Buzz is always very lenient with the players offensively. You see how we play. It’s kind of a drive kick, everybody’s just trying to make good basketball plays.”

And that’s the biggest thing about Williams’ coaching style. He’s versatile enough to change his schemes every single year. He molds the offense (and defense) to his personnel, not the other way around. The only constant is the successful track record.

Take last season for example. Marquette was coming off one of it’s most successful seasons in a decade reaching the Sweet 16 the year before, finishing second in the Big East, boasting the Big East Player of the Year and two NBA draft picks. No one expected Marquette to top that. Not Paint Touches. Not the media. Not other coaches. Not even Buzz Williams.

How did it happen then?

Buzz completely transformed the identity to match his team. In 2011-12, Marquette was the 11th fastest team in terms of length per possession on offense according to KenPom’s data. One year later, that dropped all the way down to 238th.

In losing two high volume, high percentage shooters, Marquette had to adapt. It could no longer rely on the 3-pointer to get back in games as it used to, shooting 29.6 percent for the season and ranked 321st out of 347 teams. Even more telling, 3-pointers only accounted for 18.5 percent of its points, ranked 334 out of 347 Division I teams.

Williams knew this as the season was progressing. He saw that the blueprint for success only seven months prior was already obsolete. So he changed the game. Instead of running up and down the floor, he had his team slow down and milk the clock a bit more. Instead of having a perimeter based attack, he incorporated his two highest efficiency players, centers Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, as the focal points. That didn’t mean they were the first options on every play, but they touched the ball nearly every possession even if it was only to kick it back out.

” We have something we called “one-mores,” where it’s not the first kick out that is the good shot. It’s the first kickout and then the one more. I’ve seen that into our culture as well,” McNeilly noted.

“I change it a little bit every year,” Williams answered in response to how he applies the advanced metrics. “The whiteboard stats we do, I tweak the numbers after I study what I think we were. Our rebounding numbers were the best they’ve ever been, but I tweak those numbers.”

It’s all relative to the team he has. If you think the transition last season was a fluke, just look at Marquette’s tempo rankings each of the past five years starting with 2008-’09: 85th, 304th, 129th, 16th and 239th. Despite the variance in styles of play, Marquette’s offensive efficiency has never been worse than 35th. Think about that again. Whether he’s playing Bo-ball or driving Lambo’s, the result stays the same.   

The amount of data he pours into his players varies as well.

“I’m a lot better at knowing which of our guys can absorb parts of it and which of our guys it paralyzes them. So I’m a lot better knowing who to give what to,” Williams said. “But I’m also better at knowing when to give it. I make our guys rattle off a lot of stuff, sometimes in the film room sometimes on the floor that are opponent specific, but it’s a small percentage of what I really know. “

What it comes down to is Williams knowing his team, his coaches and his players well enough to understand how much they can handle. That goes for their personal and professional relationships as well. Call them “life touches” if you will. He’s able to demand such a high standard and extract every ounce of talent because he gets to know his players not just as employees and point scorers, but as the people they are and the people they want to be.

Dominic James played under Williams for one season, yet that one year left such an impression that James still thinks (and Tweets) about Williams publicly. He’s not alone. Trent Lockett, Jae Crowder, Junior Cadougan and Jimmy Butler all had texted him around the time of our interview with a similar message of gratitude. You can bet they aren’t the only ones.

It’s at this point that the book on Buzz Williams circa September 2013 can come to a close.

“If you think of all the stereotypes of me, I’m not saying that big-picture wise some of them aren’t in essence right. But it’s because they just glance at the big picture, they don’t really study it.”

When asked what the biggest misconception people had about him was, Williams, without hesitation, responded that people think he’s a “star-craven idiot.”

“There’s only a very small population of people that really know me,” Buzz continued. “It’s my passion, I think, sometimes is not necessarily perceived in the right way. But I understand because they don’t see the other side of me. Very rarely do I let anybody see the other side of me.”

Buzz Williams is not just that goofy coach who danced on West Virginia’s floor. He’s not just the guy “walking it out” on the sideline after big dunks. He’s not just some “rainman” numbers freak. In fact he’s not just a basketball coach.

Buzz Williams is a relationship specialist.

This is the final installment of an exclusive six-part series chronicling the growth of Marquette head coach Buzz Williams. Mark Strotman contributed to this story.

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2 Comments on “The origin of paint touches under Buzz Williams”

  1. Bob
    October 16, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    Andrei, good article. Dominic James played under Buzz for two seasons: one when Buzz was an assistant to Tom Crean, and of course the second when Buzz took over as head coach.


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