NEW YORK – A basketball team is always a work in progress. From the first day that the players arrive on campus until the day that the season ends — whether that is in the conference tournament, the first round of the NCAA Tournament, or, if you are lucky enough, on the final day of the season — the goal is too simply get better.
Yes, you want to win games along the way, but its more important for the team as a whole to grow, each and every time they step foot on the court.
“We don’t want to play for the record. We don’t want to play for the ranking. We want to play to improve. We want to play to grow,” head coach Buzz Williams said after his team’s thrilling, 79-77 win over Washington in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic. “Its like a stock, an investment. We’re investing in ourselves so that our stock continues to grow.”
No one has epitomized that more than Marquette over the past couple of seasons. The Golden Eagles have been dubbed Team Bubble Watch, as they have developed a reputation over for struggling to close out games early in the year before coming together and making an impressive stretch run.
Last season, that run came during the postseason. After dropping their last two games of the regular season, the Golden Eagles needed two wins in the NCAA Tournament just to be able to get themselves an at-large invite to the Big Dance. Marquette proceeded to upset both Xavier and Syracuse en route to the Sweet 16. The year before that — in 2009-2010 — Marquette started out the season 11-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big East, but then won nine out of ten games, including three straight in overtime, to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.
This season is different.
Marquette has played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country to date. They have played just three of their eight games at home, something you rarely see out of high-major programs. They won the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands and also own a tough win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, which is one of the most difficult places for a road team to come out victorious. The win is made all the more impressive considering the Golden Eagles were playing without starting point guard Junior Cadougan.
And after knocking off what is probably the most talented team in the Pac-12, Marquette improves to 8-0 on the season, something that Team Bubble Watch isn’t exactly used to.
“Its different than what we’ve done in the past, that’s for sure,” Williams said. “I think that’s just the maturity of our guys. I think out schedule is probably just a little too hard. We still have to play at LSU, we still have to play Vanderbilt at home.”
“We haven’t been able to get to this point before, having played who we play.”
The stereotype that gets called into play when talking about this Marquette program is toughness. A gritty group of JuCo players led by a gritty JuCo head coach toughing out wins based purely on their blue-collar work ethic and their mettle as a team.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Williams.
“We don’t want to be tactical and we don’t want to be technical. We want to be tough,” he said. “I don’t think that if you diagnose how we played tonight, that you would consider us a top 40 teams. but if you were diagnosing our toughness relative to what we’ve been through over the last four days, we’re pretty tough.”
Toughness only gets you so far in a college basketball landscape dominated by one-and-done prospects, the McDonald’s all-americans that draw the biggest crowds and the highest-spending agents and runners. Toughness allows you to hang with the best, but talent lets you beat the best. And this season, Marquette has as much talent on their roster as they have in Buzz Willliams’ tenure.
And that’s saying something, considering the fact that the Golden Eagles have sent a number of players to the professional ranks — Jimmy Butler, Lazar Hayward, Wesley Matthews — during Buzz’s tenure. No one seems to notice that.
For Buzz, that’s perfectly ok.
“At some point you have to give it up that our program is much deeper than just being the toughest team,” Williams said. “At some point, the problem with it is because I don’t say it, nobody writes it. I don’t want to talk about what we do, I want our character to be revealed. Its more than just playing hard. Its more than just being the toughest. At some point, somebody has to have enough guts to say that.”
He’s right, and I’m not just saying that because Williams told me too. Yeah, the quote is nice (thanks Buzz), but this team’s performance speaks for itself. Darius Johnson-Odom, who averages nearly 20 ppg, went for 23 points and four assists against Washington. Jae Crowder, the team’s second-eading scorer and leading rebounder at 16.9 ppg and 6.7 rpg, had 18 points and six boards, which includes the game-winning three pointer with six seconds left. Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Todd Mayo are all capable back court players.
Throw in a trio of capable big men up front — Chris Otule, Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson — that Williams said “changes the complexion of our team”, and Marquette has a team that is capable of winning the Big East.
Sooner or later they are going to get that respect.
“For sure we get overlooked,” Crowder said. “People think we’re one-dimensional, and that’s not who we are.”
“Its all people talk about, but at some point it has to end.