Friday March 12th, 2010

Buzz Williams

Buzz Williams and Marquette face Georgetown in the Big East Tournament semifinals on Friday. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- In the course of trying to explain how his Marquette team reached the Big East Tournament semifinals, and improbably finished fifth in the nation's toughest league after losing three 1,000-point scorers and being picked 12th in the preseason poll, coach Buzz Williams used an acronym of his own creation: WDYL.

It stands for "Where Do You Live?" -- and Williams has gone as far as to have it printed on the Golden Eagles' practice shorts. "In my opinion, old people live in the past, and love to talk about things when they were young," Williams said. "Young people love to talk about the future. Every player here, they all think they're going to the league. But I believe wise people live in the present."

Lazar Hayward

Lazar Hayward (right) and the Golden Eagles beat Villanova on Thursday for the first time this season. (Getty Images)

Translation: Don't fret about the departure of your four-year backcourt trio of Dominic James, Wes Matthews and Jerel McNeal (the past). Don't worry about the long odds of making the NCAA tournament (the future) with a lineup of only one star, Lazar Hayward, and a bunch of anonymous role players. Just go all-out on every single possession, because otherwise, Williams told them, "we're going to get blown out."

The live-in-the-now philosophy seems to have originated in Buddhism. One of Siddhartha Gautama's most-repeated sayings is, "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." That advice dates back to 500 B.C., and different versions of it have evolved into modern self-help books. In Eckhart Tolle's 2004 bestseller, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, he writes, "Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the now."

Such teachings fall under the heading of "mindfulness," a central principle of Buddhism that can be described as training the mind to "remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert." That state of calm is the goal of widely adopted meditation practices. I realize I've gone on a serious tangent, but here's the point: WDYL is intriguing precisely because Williams and Marquette, on the surface, are anything but calm.

The adjective Hayward used to describe the Golden Eagles' style in their upset of fourth-seeded Villanova 80-76 in the Big East quarterfinals was "frantic." As in, "We know that the only chance we have to win is to play extremely frantic."

Marquette has no true post players, so it runs a wild drive-and-kick offense that results in a barrage of threes (18 against 'Nova). The Golden Eagles gamble for steals and force turnovers (the Wildcats had 14). And Williams' sideline demeanor is frantic, or spastic, or some combination of the two. The ESPN highlight package from Thursday's game included a great overhead shot of him freaking out during a huddle, and The YouTube clip of Williams doing a walk-it-out dance to celebrate Darius Johnson-Odom's follow dunk on March 2 has more than 1.6 million views. Williams may vaguely resemble a Buddha, but that is not the dance of a Buddhist.

While Williams was being interviewed in the Madison Square Garden tunnel, one of the Big East officials who worked Thursday's game walked by and said, "He's a little nuts, but he can coach."

Both statements are true. Williams did one of the year's most underrated coaching jobs by leading the Golden Eagles to a 22-10 record (and an NCAA tournament bid) after most pundits figured the team would struggle to get to .500. He'd also just come from a press conference where he showed hints of his functional obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most coaches use their opening statement to dish a few bad clichés about their team; Williams began by apologizing for showing up late to the dais the day before, explaining that he had mis-timed the length of the walk from the locker room to the media area. Williams mentioned that Marquette had held 79 practices this season; as senior guard Maurice Acker said, "What coach knows that?" And what coach says, when talking about Villanova's Jay Wright, "I read every word he ever says every single day of the year"?

I asked Williams, later, why he monitored Wright's remarks so closely, and he said, as if it were no big deal, "I read every word that every coach in our league says, every day of the year."

Apparently he has his sports information director, Scott Kuykendall, use a research service to compile daily reports of every quote from every Big East coach. When I dropped in on him in October 2008, during the offseason that he was promoted to Marquette's head-coaching gig after Tom Crean left for Indiana, Williams said that he'd been obsessively studying famed coaches' press conferences for his whole life. He also asked his assistant to put exactly six ice cubes in his iced tea, kept a stockpile of Copenhagen tins so that he'd always have one in his pocket, and had his entire day planned down to the minute, including not just practice, but every phone call he'd make, and the exact amount of time our interview would last.

I inquired on Thursday if he had picked up any new O.C.D. habits since then, and he said, "I'm trying to limit them. I've got enough issues as they are."

Williams obsesses over numbers as much as routine. An actual quote of his, in response to a question about Marquette's unusual number of close games this season, referencing 12 numbers in about 10 seconds: "Thirteen of our 20 Big East contests have been decided by four points or less, and we started the year out 2-5. Four of those were on the road, and those five [losses] were by a total of 11 points. And if you add our seven total losses in those 20 games up, we've lost by 21 points, so every single game has been decided by one possession."

To give you a few more numbers, four of the Golden Eagles' final five regular-season games went to overtime, and both of their regular-season meetings with Villanova were two-point losses. On Thursday, they came out on the winning end, in part because they were so comfortable playing in tight situations. And this is where we finally find the intersection of Buzz and the Buddha. Where Does Marquette Live? In a present that's Big East nail-biter after Big East nail-biter. Williams keeps order over what can appear chaotic. His players have reached a state of calm in crunch time. Such mindfulness should help them in NCAA tournament, but that, even just a week away, is still too far in the future.

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