Underappreciated Marquette earning its place among hoops elite
The video quickly went viral.
A few minutes after his team's one-point win at West Virginia Friday night, Marquette coach Buzz Williams waltzed to a few bars of John Denver's "Country Road" as he strolled across the court. While it appeared that Williams was taunting the Mountaineers' student section, he was merely savoring a beautiful moment as he made his way to the broadcast table for a postgame interview. When Williams realized the West Virginia students were angry, he acknowledged his mistake on the air -- "That's my fault," he said as he put on his headset -- and apologized profusely during his postgame news conference.
Williams was still awash with contrition when I spoke with him by telephone Sunday afternoon. "Please write this," he urged. "It was an emotional response that was very unprofessional. I was not trying to do anything disrespectful. It's not who I am and I wish I hadn't done it. It's unfortunate, and I'm sorry."
Williams' apology is classy, but what's really unfortunate is the way those few seconds overshadowed what had transpired during the two hours that preceded them. Marquette, which began the season undersized as usual, played on Friday night without its two best big men. Chris Otule, a 6-foot-11 junior center, suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 6, and Davante Gardner, a 6-8 sophomore forward, was sidelined because of a sprained knee. The Golden Eagles also played the first half sans three starters, who were being punished for violating team rules. A fourth player sat out the second half for the same reason. Moreover, the Eagles were on the road and facing a good team that desperately needed to boost its NCAA tournament hopes. And did I mention they were down by 15 points with 18 minutes to play?
With all of that going against them, the Golden Eagles still scraped out a one-point win. That, however, was not the only thing that inspired their coach's awkward two-step. Williams was likewise moved by the quiet, intimate words that senior guard Jae Crowder whispered into his ear after the final horn. "He hugged me and said, 'Coach, I love you. I'm so thankful you're here. I'll fight for you anywhere, anytime,'" Williams said. "I put my head in his chest and I was crying. It's why I got so emotional and danced. I mean, that's what all this is supposed to be about."
It's hard to find a more unlikely -- and more unnoticed -- story in college basketball this season than Marquette. The Golden Eagles are alone in second place in the Big East with a 13-3 record (24-5 overall), and their No. 8 ranking in this week's AP poll. Yet, they seem to be generating very little, well, buzz. Not that it's a problem. Beginning with the frenetic, bald, energetic, lousy dancer who leads the charge from the sidelines, this is a group of folks who have long been overachieving while being overlooked.
A perfect example is Crowder, the team's leading rebounder (7.6), second-leading scorer (17.4) and one of the most versatile defenders in the country. A 6-6 senior from Villa Rica, Ga., Crowder was, by his own admission, an overweight teenager who didn't get serious about basketball until he was a junior in high school. He was not recruited by a single college during his senior season. After graduating, Crowder played one year at South Georgia Tech Junior College in Americus, Ga., but after helping that school make its first appearance in the junior college national championships, Crowder learned that the college was not accredited. That forced him to transfer to Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, where he was eventually voted the NJCAA Player of the Year while leading that school to its first-ever national title.
At the start of Crowder's sophomore season, Howard's coach, who had met Buzz Williams some two decades before, reached out to him and told Buzz that he should recruit Crowder. Williams flew down for a game, but Crowder only played nine minutes because of foul trouble. When Crowder's coach apologized to Williams afterward, Williams told him there was no need. "I told the coach that was the absolute best game I could have come to," Williams said. "Jae was standing on the sideline the whole game waving a towel like he was a cheerleader. He was the first guy to half-court greeting the guys when they were on the way to the huddle. I watched his body language the entire time. It was obvious he was a great teammate."
At least Williams saw Crowder play those nine minutes. That's nine more than he saw of his current leading scorer, 6-2 senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom. A native of Raleigh, N.C., Johnson-Odom was a decent high school player, but his recruitment was cut short by a procedural error which prevented the NCAA's academic clearinghouse from declaring him eligible. That forced Johnson-Odom to spend one year in prep school and another at Hutchinson (Ks.) Community College, where he became a juco All-American. Now Johnson-Odom is on pace to be one of the top-10 scorers in Marquette history, even though he will only have played there for three seasons. Said Williams of his two leading scorers, "I don't think there's any way that anybody could have predicted their path from where they were in high school to where they are now."
Then again, Marquette is the place where a guy named Dwyane Wade went from being uninvited to either the Nike or adidas camps the summer before his senior year of high school to one of the top-10 players in the NBA. It's the place where a guy named Jimmy Butler went from being the 82nd-ranked high school player in the state of Texas to the first round of the NBA draft. Ironically, the only player currently on Marquette's roster who was a decorated high school player, 6-4 sophomore guard Vander Blue, has been deemed by many as a disappointment. Blue hasn't been nearly the scorer he was in high school -- he is making just 25.9 percent of his three-point attempts this season -- but he has endeared himself to his coach by grabbing 4.4 rebounds per game.
Williams knows that you need have a lot of talent to become a top-10 team. Still, when he hears his guys characterized as being "tough" and "scrappy," it is, he says, "the highest compliment that can be paid." Buzz explains: "A lot of guys aren't anointed as recruits, but that doesn't mean they're not as good or better than guys who are. I don't know that you can make a living based completely on those guys, but you do have to have a roster of players who have a lot of heart and who understand what your program is all about."
If the players had any doubt as to what the program is about, Williams erased it by issuing those suspensions for the West Virginia game. Williams would not disclose what they did to merit the punishment, other than to tell me that "it wasn't anything awful. They're all good kids. They broke a team policy, and that's the end of it." Moving forward, the larger concern is Gardner, who was originally projected to be out four weeks but is healing slowly. Gardner still hasn't gone through a full practice, and Williams doesn't anticipate that he will be ready in time for Wednesday's game at Cincinnati.
Still, when a team enters the final week of February ranked in the top-10, its fans usually expect it to have a realistic chance to make the Final Four. But can a team get there when the only player on its roster that is taller than 6-7 hasn't played in over a month? "I honestly don't know what to expect," Williams said. "All I know is we better be the hardest-playing team we can be and be fundamentally sound on every possession. If we do that, then we'll just add 'em up at the end and see where we're at."
It has taken longer than it should have, but Marquette has earned its place on center stage the hard way. Time to dance.
• Could we be headed for another classic finish in the Ivy? Harvard's loss at home to Penn on Saturday dropped the Crimson into a tie for first place. Since this conference has no postseason tournament, that means Harvard could find itself in a one-game playoff for the championship for the second year in a row. If that happens, do whatever you need to do to watch. Last year's game was incredible: Princeton guard Douglas Davis hit a fallaway three-pointer from deep in the corner to win, 63-62.
• I know the committee is only supposed to focus on this year's results and not history, but I have a theory: These are human beings in that room. So I have to believe (and hope) that they're going to find a way to get a second (and maybe even a third) team from the CAA into the field.
• I'm surprised to learn that the Big East is considering adding Temple, because I had always heard that Villanova would do everything it could to prevent it. I thought that was shortsighted. Temple-Nova is already a great rivalry, but it would become even bigger if those were in the same league. Look at what being in the same conference did for Kansas and Missouri all those years.
• It's hard to recall a more devastating loss than N.C. State's at Duke two weeks ago, when the Wolfpack blew a 20-point lead in Cameron. Had they been able to hang on, the Pack would have significantly strengthened their at-large resume. They've lost three straight since then, including a bubble-bursting overtime loss at Clemson on Saturday. For shame.
• Purdue's win at Michigan is a perfect example of why the new wrinkle in ESPN's new Basketball Power Index is so faulty. The BPI takes into account missing players, which means Purdue's win would count a little less because Matt Painter dismissed Kelsey Barlow from the program. The actual selection committee, on the other hand, might recognize that the Boilermakers are potentially better without Barlow. Remember, folks, this is a very subjective exercise. Numbers can only dictate so much.
• How does Pat Knight go from absolutely killing his seniors one game to talking about how proud he is of them three days later? Bad form, coach.
• I can't remember a year when there were so many good candidates for National Coach of the Year. I've been on the Frank Haith train for most of the season, but I still haven't decided for sure.
• Spare me the this-is-the-worst-bubble-ever complaints. This is only the worst bubble since last year. The bubble was never pretty even before we went to 37 at-large teams. It will get even less pretty when we go to 38 after Conference USA and the Mountain West merge, thereby eliminating an automatic qualifier. Can you imagine what the bubble would look like if the tourney had expanded to 96? Perish the thought.
• I don't like the vibes coming out of Florida right now. The Gators were playing uninspired basketball even before they lost their best rebounder post defender, Will Yeguete, to a broken foot. In their first game without him, they lost on the road to a pretty bad Georgia team by double digits. If you're looking for a high seed to peg for an upset in your bracket, there are worse places to look.
• Remember when Anthony Davis looked shaky out of the gate from the free throw line? Through his first seven games he shot 52.8 percent. Since then he has made 78.4 percent. He's, um, good.
• Speaking of Kentucky, isn't it funny how nobody mentions their lack of depth? John Calipari gave all but three minutes of that Vanderbilt game to six guys. Winning is indeed the ultimate deodorant.
• Four of Syracuse's last eight wins have been very close shaves. Over the last month the Orange have beaten Louisville by one, UConn and West Virginia by a deuce, and Georgetown by three in overtime. Anyone in Orangeland getting just a wee bit nervous?
• People who doubt whether Draymond Green can be a good NBA player should not be taken seriously. The kid is a first team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year. Lots of guys who were very marginal college players seem to be cashing paychecks up there right now.
• Weird how it is with Duke: Each game, between Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, two of those three shoot well and the third is a non-factor. To beat a really good team on a neutral court, the Blue Devils will need all three to be on point.
• Remember how Cornell benefited from having a 7-foot center in Jeff Foote when it reached the Sweet Sixteen two years ago? I think Wichita State has that same kind of asset in Garrett Stutz. Often times, size is what differentiates mid-majors from power conference schools. So having a 7-footer who can rebound and shoot threes is huge. Just one more reason why I'm digging the Shockers.
• Royce White is having a terrific season, but Iowa State's three-point shooting is a major reason why the Cyclones appear to be bound for the NCAA tournament. Iowa State has three of the top 10 three-point shooters in the Big 12, and it is ranked seventh nationally in made threes per game. Witness senior guard Scott Christopherson, who made all five of his three-point attempts while dropping 29 points on Kansas State. The great thing about Iowa State's position is that its final two games are against Missouri and Baylor, so the Cyclones won't even have a chance to suffer a bad loss.
• Have you considered the possibility that the Pac 12 could end up getting three teams into the tournament?
• Josh Pastner has done an extraordinary job this season. He has a young team, lost two starters to season-ending injuries, yet he still has Memphis alone in first place in Conference USA.
• I heard that some people in the Ohio Valley Conference think this Murray State team is not as good as the one that beat Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament two years ago. I disagree. These Racers may not have quite the same talent, but their intangibles are off the charts. That was a tough road win they grinded out at Tennessee Tech Saturday night.
• Indiana's Christian Watford may have sunk the dramatic three to beat Kentucky in early December, but he has had some horrendous shooting games lately: 0-for-7 against Purdue, 4-for-11 against Northwestern, 0-for-5 against Iowa, 0-for-8 against North Carolina Central. I don't know if it's a slump, tired legs or bad shot selection, but I do know the Hoosiers won't go far in the tournament unless Watford finds his range.
• This is one of my favorite weeks of the season for one reason: Senior day. I just love watching all these proud young men walking to midcourt with their parents. Reason number 1,573 why college hoops is better than the NBA.
• One last postscript from the Karl Hess-Tom Gugliotta-Chris Corchiani contretemps. It does no one any good -- least of all Hess -- to forbid an official to explain himself to the media immediately after something like that occurs. We act like this is some kind of huge state secret. If Hess had good reason to give those guys the boot, he should have had the chance to explain himself. If he didn't, he should have faced harsher consequences than being reprimanded for failing to follow proper procedures.
• Just so you know, when I reference fatigue this time of year, I'm usually talking about mental fatigue more than physical. These are college kids. Their minds are much more likely to wear down than their legs.
• When you're breaking down the chase for a number one seed, remember what's really at stake. Kansas and Missouri both want to play in the St. Louis regional. So it's better for them to be a two seed in the Midwest than a one seed in the west. Also, if Duke and North Carolina end up fighting to be the top number two seed, that's also significant. Why? Because it will be the difference between being sent out west as a two as opposed to being sent to the East or South, where Syracuse and Kentucky are going to be looming.
• Love this quote last week from Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: "I plan on being loose the rest of my career, because I can be."
(Last week's rank in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Kansas (4)
4. Michigan State (5)
5. Missouri (3)
6. Duke (6)
7. North Carolina (7)
8. Marquette (10)
9. Ohio State (8)
10. Baylor (14)
11. Murray State (12)
12. Michigan (9)
13. Wisconsin (16)
14. Wichita State (18)
15. Georgetown (13)
16. Notre Dame (17)
17. Drexel (25)
18. Florida (11)
19. Florida State (15)
20. UNLV (21)
21. San Diego State (22)
22. Virginia (24)
23. Temple (19)
24. VCU (NR)
25. Iowa State (NR)
Dropped out: New Mexico (20), Louisville (23)
The first puzzle I needed to solve was Missouri. On the one hand, the Tigers did lose twice last week, including by 10 points at home to Kansas State. On the other hand, if you watched them go down in overtime at Kansas on Saturday, you saw a team that was every bit as good as its opponent. So I split the baby: The Tigers deserved to be ranked behind Kansas, but I kept them ahead of Duke and North Carolina. It was a close call, but I know what I saw.
Keep in mind that I fill out my ballot knowing that it doesn't decide anything, even if people are interested in where voters rank their teams. (Just check out the way my mentions feed blows up on Twitter every Sunday night when I tweet out my ballot.) You also need to remember that there is a distinct difference between ranking teams and placing them in the bracket. If I were doing a bracket, I would give Duke a slight edge over Kansas for the final number one seed based on the Blue Devils' head-to-head victory over the Jayhawks back in the Maui Invitational. Rankings, however, are much more weighted toward what has happened lately. And yes, they are political. If I think there's an overlooked team that deserves some extra recognition, my ballot will reflect that.
There are so many results by this point in the season, it's hard to make wholesale changes. For example, Wisconsin lost to Iowa on the road last week but then beat Ohio State. Both of those games count. I wanted to punish the Buckeyes for that loss, but I don't honestly believe they're worse than Baylor and Murray State. So they only fell one spot.
Michigan also lost by 14 points at home to Purdue. I wanted to move the Wolverines down several places but look who's behind them: Georgetown and Notre Dame, who both lost last week to Seton Hall and St. John's, respectively. See what I mean?
Now for the political part. I have three mid-majors on my ballot that I'm guessing are higher than where other voters will place them: Wichita State at 14, Drexel as 17, and VCU at 24. If you put any of those three teams against any team ranked outside my top 10 on a neutral court with neutral referees, I honestly believe they'd be evenly matched. You can talk all you want about the quality of their competition, but Murray State has played the same level or worse, and it was ranked 14th last week.
Still, I admit that I gave those three teams extra weight in hopes that it will send a little more recognition their way. In the cases of VCU and Drexel, that is my way of saying that I believe the CAA deserves to have at least two teams go to the NCAA tournament. I'm putting my ballot where my mouth is.
Elsewhere, I wasn't thrilled with the idea of leaving UNLV and San Diego State on the ballot, but both those teams won their games last week, so I couldn't drop them out. Florida and Florida State both got dinged for losing to Georgia and Miami, respectively. One more bad loss would put either off my ballot altogether.
Temple had won 11 straight games before losing at Saint Joseph's last weekend. That earned the Owls a mulligan (and losing on the road to a league rival hardly qualifies as a bad loss). With so few slots opening up, it's impossible to find a place for every team that might be deserving to be ranked. Indiana fans were up in arms Sunday night when I tweeted out a ballot that didn't include the Hoosiers, but since I didn't have IU ranked last week, I had to ask myself which was the harder win -- Iowa State's at Kansas State, or Indiana's at Minnesota? I think that answer is obvious.
I've heard the outcry from some of my media colleagues that Indiana's "overall body of work" is too great to ignore. This is a specious argument. As I said with regards to Duke and Kansas, if we're talking about putting together an NCAA tournament bracket, then overall body of work is paramount. A top 25 ballot, in my view, should be much more weighted to what teams have done lately. Would Indiana be an obvious favorite over Drexel, Temple or VCU if they played on a neutral court? Hardly. Are the Hoosiers playing any better than Iowa State is right now? Don't think so.
The good news for Indiana is that, unlike a lot of teams, it still has a chance to play a top-five team on its home floor. If the Hoosiers beat Michigan State in Bloomington on Tuesday night, I promise they will have a place on my ballot next week. Simple, right?
Besides, Indiana is far from the only good team that I left out. Louisville, Saint Mary's, Gonzaga, George Mason, Nevada, Creighton and Weber State could all make credible arguments. I'm glad that we've only got a couple more weeks to pretend the ranking matter. After that, all these debates will get decided right where they should be -- on the court.