When Marquette stepped onto the Virgin Islands Sport & Fitness Center basketball floor to play Ole Miss almost exactly two years ago, expectations were high. The Golden Eagles had won their first three contests by an average of 95-59, were playing efficient basketball and had stars shining through. In those three games, Marquette had three different leading scorers and had entered the Associated Press Top 25 in the process, holding steady at No. 21.
In that contest against the Rebels, Marquette, a seven-point favorite, raced out to a 36-12 lead midway through the half behind 17 points from Crowder — he finished with 25 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes — and wound up winning 96-66, moving to a strong 4-0.
And after the game, Buzz Williams uttered words that eventually would ring true the next 31 games as Crowder took on a near-perfect role in leading Marquette to the Sweet 16.
“I think Jae, in a lot of ways, is the heart and soul of what we do on both ends of the floor,” Williams told the Associated Press. “We function with a lot better rhythm when he’s playing. I don’t know how many minutes he had or points he scored, but how in sync we are typically means he’s in the game.”
Crowder was an incredible +41 in that fourth game of the season, with Marquette outscoring Ole Miss 68-27 when the future Big East Player of the Year was on the court, leading the Golden Eagles with poise and efficiency in his first games as Marquette’s senior leader.
Two years and two days later, it’s time for Jamil Wilson to become that player.
Before you head to the comment section, your forum of choice or Twitter to rip to shreds this statement, understand that Jamil Wilson has not been the reason for Marquette’s struggles through four games. Though he has underperformed, this column could have been written about numerous different topics — 3-point shooting, a lack of point-guard productivity, freshmen starting slow, efficiency deficiencies, etc. — on how this journalist and this outlet try to figure out what’s really ailing Marquette.
But this problem starts at the top, even if the numbers show that the players below Wilson have been worse.
The always-candid Williams spoke openly at Media Day, saying that “we really struggled in September. I think we’ve come out of it, but only time will tell. I think the next month will probably determine if we’re able to get off to a good start or not.”
Within that apparent ugly September, Williams noted that Jamil Wilson “(had) been very accountable the last 10 days. The previous 30 days was garbage.” It’s unclear in tone whether Williams was still speaking of Wilson in that second sentence, but the lack of leadership in the months leading up to the season worried Williams, and whether Wilson wanted it or not, it fell on him — Williams said at media day that “leaders are leaders whether they are named leaders or not.”
Senior leadership is an ugly narrative and an easy copout to not truly understanding the ins and outs of a team. But the Golden Eagles were going to rely on such direction, and Wilson was the clear candidate. Davante Gardner and Chris Otule aren’t vocal leaders by nature, even though Williams has admitted on multiple occasions that the pair of centers are the most consistent and hardest workers on the team. It wasn’t going to be Jake Thomas because the redshirt senior was expected to play situationally and, having opted to transfer earlier in the season, didn’t scream leadership. Williams has a specific role for Thomas; it isn’t team leader.
That left Wilson, who has been with the program since 2010, as long as anyone not named Otule.
It’s not fair to say if Wilson has been a “good” or “bad” leader for Marquette. As much access as Williams allows, and as open as he is in his comments, we aren’t in the locker room, in practice or in the huddle when the going gets tough. It may even be safe to say that Wilson has been a solid leader for Marquette, as Williams alluded to in October with his “last 10 days” comment. Wilson’s teammates certainly respect him.
But whatever Wilson is doing, it hasn’t been enough. In four games, Wilson has averaged 8.3 points on 31 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists. In the last two games, when things have gone south for Marquette as a whole, he’s 3-of-18 from the field. Against Ohio State, Wilson had a -18 rating in a 17-point loss; last night he was +1 in Marquette’s five-point win.
When I spoke to former assistant Aki Collins two seasons ago, he provided exclusive access into how the coaching staff perceives their players. And perhaps more than anyone, his comments on Wilson were most telling and still ring true today. Here’s what he said in May 2012, when asked where Wilson projects over the next two seasons:
“Getting him to have that killer instinct that, ‘When I step on the floor, not only do I think I’m the best player…I know I’m the best player and they know I’m the best player,'” Collins said, “and then following that and coming up with a performance that’s indicative of your talent level is the key to his success.
“That fine line between good and great that Jamil has to overcome, he’s getting so much closer to being great. But it’s not there yet, and we need it to be in order to maximize our potential as a team.”
Marquette won’t just be a good or great team if Wilson reaches that potential; it needs him to reach that potential. Part of that includes finding a killer instinct. It can’t be faked, but I’ve seen it from him before (see: Miami, Sweet 16), so now it’s about consistency and, like Collins said, understanding that he can be the best player on the court every night.
Last night a clearly frustrated Williams was blunt in his assessment of what has gone wrong from Marquette, and what he and his team must do to change the culture: Get back to the basics.
“We have to get back to how we laid the foundation in the time that we’ve been here,” he said, “and how we’ve built the foundation in the time that we’ve been here.”
Two seasons ago Crowder, a similar player in style to Wilson, laid and built Marquette’s foundation on being the heart and soul of the team — Williams’ words, not mine. And if Williams truly wants to get back to where his team was built, that’s the best place to start.
Wilson doesn’t need to be Jae Crowder. Marquette will be successful even if Wilson isn’t the conference’s best player who receives All-American votes and is drafted the following June. He needs to be Marquette’s heart and soul and make the players around him better. Jamil Wilson is very good. He needs to be great.
It’s within his skill set, maturity and the trust Williams and his teammates have in him.
Jamil Wilson isn’t Marquette’s problem, but he’s the one player who can fix them.