WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the surface, it would seem like Marquette and Syracuse are similar programs.
Both are members of the Big East this year and both will be leaving the Big East after this year. (Technically, Marquette is leaving the Big East to join the new Big East, but you get my point.) They’ve played once already this season and both have made plenty of appearances on ESPN and CBS during the year. Their head coaches are quirky, lovable characters adored by their fanbase. Most importantly, both programs are very good and nationally relevant; there’s a reason that they’re squaring off in the Elite 8 on Saturday afternoon.
But when you take a closer look at how these two teams have gotten to this point, you’ll realize that the No. 3 seed Golden Eagles and No. 4 seed Orange don’t really have all that much in common.
It starts with their game preparation. There may not be a coach in the country that puts more effort and more time into his scouting reports for an opponent than Williams. He’s thorough. He’s tireless. He embraces the x’s-and-o’s and calls out an opponent’s plays from the sidelines while understanding advanced analytics as well as anyone. This is what their locker room looked like prior to their Sweet 16 matchup with Miami:
When he came to the press conference on Friday afternoon, he had already watch film of Syracuse’s last six games.
“How we handle scouting is probably unique to some organizations, but our kids know what to expect when it comes to scouting,” Williams said. “My staff has been incredible. This year and in years past, for that matter, in scouting. I’m over the top on the analytics involved as a team, as an individual.”
Compare that to Boeheim.
“I’m not a big proponent of scouting, film work,” he said. “I probably watch less film than anybody in the country. We know what we need to do. Everybody in this business knows what they need to do. It’s a question of if you can execute it in the game.”
“I always laugh at football coaches. They know every play, every position, every move that these other guys are going to make because they watch 36,000 hours of tape. Their players have no clue what they’re talking about. If they can get some of the players to get some understanding … It’s not what the coaches know or what you know, it’s what the players know and how they execute.”
Notice a difference?
Then you look at who they recruit.
Marquette’s roster is littered with players that embody their feisty head coach. Williams’ back-story is one that has been told 100 times, and deservedly so. It’s incredible. He never played basketball. He didn’t know anyone in college basketball. He got his first job because he sent letters to 425 different coaches every week until he was able to scrape together enough money to pay for a flight to the 1994 Final Four. From there, he heard about a job at UT-Arlington and scraped together enough money to buy a car and drive down to the head coach’s house simply to tell him he wanted the job.
Long story short, he worked his way up the ladder — quite literally — before eventually getting the head coaching gig with Marquette when Tom Crean left for Indiana. Every player that Williams recruits has that same mindset. They have a chip on their shoulder, they have something to prove. Whether it’s because they were under-recruited coming out of high school, or because they couldn’t work their way into a rotation at their first Division I school, or because they were overlooked and had to work their way up through the JuCo ranks, there’s an attitude that permeates every fiber of this Marquette program.
“When we step on the court, if you don’t give us respect, we’re going to earn it,” Vander Blue said after Thursday’s win over Miami. “Sooner or later, you’ve gotta give credit where credit is due.”
“They have a very good team. I just look at the players on the team, I don’t look at the hype,” Boeheim said. “That’s what you look at as a coach. You don’t look at how many high school all-americans they had. Whatever.”
“Half of the high school all-americans aren’t any good.”
Boeheim would know as well as anyone, as his roster is stockpiled with top 25 recruits and early entry candidates. The Orange wage war on the recruiting trail with the biggest of the big boys, and they land their fair share of the kids they target. It’s ironic, really: both coaches have a ‘type’. Williams recruits a Chevy Silverado commercial — blue-collar, motor, work ethic, toughness — while Boeheim wants the kids that hit all of the NBA Draft buzzwords — length, athleticism, potential, ceiling — to plug into his 2-3 zone.
And therein lies the beauty of this matchup.
The perennial underdogs vs. the five-star talents. The hall of fame coach that played at Syracuse vs. the short kid from Van Alstyne that got his start as a student assistant at a JuCo.
Regardless of the differences between the two programs, there is one thing that they do have in common: they don’t want their season to end on Saturday night.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.