Part of Buzz Williams’ annual schtick has been to let reporters know his teams, for lack of a better word, suck.
Nearly one year ago Williams told reporters “we’re not a good team” after his Golden Eagles scored 89 points in a win against DePaul to move them to 8-2 in the Big East. Four months earlier he had said his team wasn’t very good before the year even began, and that team eventually won 26 games and were 40 minutes away from a Final Four berth.
That group was a good team, perhaps a great one. They went nine-deep, perfectly complemented each other and had the correct blend of veteran leadership and young energy necessary to win games — having Vander Blue against Davidson and Williams against Miami didn’t hurt, either.
So the conjecture from Williams, whether it was him having fun with media members, or trying to motivate his team, went by the wayside. No matter the reason, he didn’t mean it — Williams knows talent, and he knew that group and others before had plenty of it. It’s certainly believable that Williams tells his players they aren’t any good — those examples are endless — and sitting in on one of his practices, like the one I watched last season, would teach even the foulest-mouthed men new four-letter words; it’s not who Williams is, but he told me earlier this year that he turns into a “monster” the moment he steps on the basketball court.
And this year something strange happened. Williams’ Golden Eagles were what he used to say they were: not any good. That’s not entirely true, but using Williams’ own words it was the closest any of his six teams had been. Marquette was 12-10, had just played 40 minutes of uninspiring basketball in a 15-point loss to St. John’s that felt more like 40 points, and Williams played 11 different players double-digit minutes, a scary statistic for any team 22 games into the season.
So the onus fell on Williams to become a monster, or as he also put it, when “there’s a winner and a loser…stark raving f——g mad.” The fact is this is Williams’ least talented team (even in 2010-11 there were five future NBA players), and if Marquette is going to make an enormous run in February and make the NCAA Tournament for the ninth straight season it’s going to be because the “monster” got his minions to play for him.
And though it took some time, Williams is finally figuring out what he wants to do with this team.
For someone who lives his life entirely planned out by the month, he was thrown three gigantic curveballs before his team took the court on Nov. 8 against Southern. First it was Vander Blue’s decision to leave for the NBA, which left a gaping hole at shooting guard that could only be filled by 3-point specialist Jake Thomas and Todd Mayo, a player who needed to earn Williams’ trust before he made his way onto the court (something he’s done).
Then Jameel McKay opted to transfer, a move that angered the coaching staff more than they publicly let on. Williams’ roster was set to allow Steve Taylor Jr. ample time to recover from knee surgery and to give Davante Gardner time to rest and allow Jamil Wilson more freedom on the perimeter. That didn’t happen, and it threw a significant wrench into the plans — regardless of whether or not McKay was going to be a contributor, it meant one less body for a roster that was going to rely on its inside presence to compete.
When Duane Wilson suffered a stress fracture in his left leg, there was no timetable initially put on the talented freshman, and a source indicated to Paint Touches that a redshirt was a real possibility. That eventually happened, and it increased Derrick Wilson’s minutes — he’s playing a team-high 30 minutes — and moved up the expected role of freshman John Dawson, who has averaged 10 minutes but struggled for the most part.
Injuries and transfers occur every season, but consider that a year ago Marquette players missed ONE game due to injury, when Vander Blue missed the Golden Eagles’ blowout win against Brett Roseboro and UMBC. Williams knew what he had all year, and never once faltered. Even when Chris Otule tore his ACL and Davante Gardner missed eight games with a knee sprain, he had Jae Crowder’s Big East Player of the Year campaign to fall back on.
It’s terribly cliché to say and it sounds like a copout for a team without a true go-to guy, but this Marquette group is going to win as a team. Last week I wrote that Jamil Wilson needed to be a rock down the stretch, but not even he can do it alone — for what it’s worth, Wilson has totaled 42 points on 14-for-23 shooting, 16 rebounds and seven 3-pointers in Marquette’s last two wins. Williams is putting his best player in the right position to succeed (on the perimeter).
The reality is this team has been Williams’ toughest test to ace, and his GPA is improving rapidly. He has taken the chains off Todd Mayo, whose 56 minutes the past two games are the most he’s played all year, found a sound balance for Thomas on offense and injected his freshmen Jajuan Johnson and Deonte Burton at the right times. Even Gardner seems more comfortable in offensive sets, and
This Marquette team does not, as Williams used to say, suck. They aren’t the world-beaters from a year ago, and Jae Crowder isn’t coming to save the day. And two straight wins over non-Tournament teams don’t fix everything, but there’s a certain feeling around the team that things are changing. Part of that has to be attributed to Williams figuring out how to play with this team. It took time, but he’s getting there.
It may be too late for an NCAA Tournament, but Williams is beginning to work his magic with a team he’s quickly understanding. Now it’s time to see how far it’ll take him.