Lazar Hayward

Jae Crowder almost didn’t make it out of the JuCo ranks

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MILWAUKEE – Far too often, we overlook the blessings in our lives.

Whether it’s because the app we downloaded onto our iPad isn’t working or our internet provider doesn’t carry ESPN3 or even something as simple accidentally buying the wrong brand of toothpaste, the little things in life always seem to be the most annoying. I know I’ve come close to throwing my cell phone out the window because the picture I took wouldn’t upload to twitter.

Life is hard, you know?

Jae Crowder doesn’t look at it that way.

“It could be worse,” Crowder said after scoring 15 points in Marquette’s 62-57 win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon. “I’m happy every day. I’m blessed. I wake up with a smile. Even when we have two-a-days.”

And why shouldn’t he be?

It wasn’t too long ago that a future as a Division I basketball player seemed unlikely.

When Crowder graduated high school, he initially enrolled in at South Georgia Tech, a Junior College in Americus, GA, that Crowder hoped would help him land a full-ride. From a basketball perspective, it worked out. Crowder led South Georgia Tech to “Hutch”, or Hutchinson Community College, where the NJCAA Tournament is held annually. He was good enough that he had Division I head coaches coming up to talk to him, but what they were saying wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear.

“Bob Huggins came up to me at practice and said ‘you should get out of there. If you want to play Division I basketball, you need to leave and give yourself a chance,'” Crowder said. “That’s when me and my dad started searching around and really getting the facts on what the school is.”

Or, rather, what the school isn’t: accredited.

For those that aren’t well-versed in educational lingo, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality”, according to the US Department of Education. In other words, none of the work that Crowder did while at South Georgia Tech would count if he tried to transfer to a Division I school.

“Of course, when the coach recruited me in high school, he didn’t tell me that. He wanted a good player,” Crowder said. “I went to school a whole year and no classes transferred anywhere.”

Crowder took Huggy Bear’s advice. He left South Georgia Tech and enrolled at Howard College. But if he truly wanted to become a Division I basketball player, it was going to require him to not only continue to develop his skills on the court, but to essentially take two years worth on classes in two semesters.

So Crowder buckled down and busted his tail in the classroom. What choice did he have?

“I doubled up on classes and did summer school up at Marquette and got enough credits to transfer in,” Crowder said. “You’re doubling everything in your schedule, and on top of that your playing basketball. We won the national championship that year, but it was the toughest thing I ever had to do.”

“I had to go right back to school to do some more school work after we on the national championship.”

Did I mention he was the tournament MVP?

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Its not easy to define what position Jae Crowder plays for the Golden Eagles.

He’s clearly not a point guard or a center, but beyond that it is difficult to find a label for him. Usually, that’s a negative quality for a player to have. Being placed in the tweener category is far from a punched ticket to the first round of the NBA draft.

Not true, for Crowder. Generally speaking, a tweener becomes a tweener because of what they can’t do on a basketball court — they aren’t strong enough to hold their own in the paint and they aren’t skilled or coordinated enough to be a full-time perimeter player. Crowder’s issue isn’t really an issue at all, because there simply isn’t much that he isn’t able to do on a basketball court.

“Jae’s versatility is on both ends of the floor,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams told me in the bowels of the Bradley Center. “Playing Jae at the three, playing Jae at the four. We’re running stuff to get him the ball inside, we’re running stuff to get him isolated out on the perimeter, how we’re guarding ball screens when he’s involved.”

“He’s a switchable and he completely has the best instincts of any player I ever coached.”

Under Williams, Marquette has become a hot bed for players of Crowder’s ilk. Before him, it was Jimmy Butler, who went on to become the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA draft and scored 12 points in a game for the Bulls last weekend. Before Butler, it was Lazar Hayward, who is currently getting his paychecks signed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before Hayward, it was Wesley Matthews, who is currently averaging more than 15 ppg for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Not a single one of those guys were blessed with the kind of physical tools that would make them a sure-fire NBA prospect, yet they thrived playing in the Marquette system.

Why?

“I think its more about being a mismatch, they’re guys that can play inside and out,” Darius Johnson-Odom said. “I think they create a lot of mismatches for other teams. Its kind of hard to guard a guy you can’t play off that can bang inside.”

Crowder reiterated the same sentiment, crediting the “freedom” Williams gives his players to do whatever they are capable of so long as it comes within the structure of the Marquette offense.

“He believes in your game,” Crowder said. “Guys like me, we just get to play freely, not worrying about if I can do this or if I can do that. Just playing within your self as long as its part of the system.”

More than anything, Williams has developed an eye for locating that kind of a player. Where some coaches are worried about athleticism and some are worried about height or shooting ability, Williams simply wants guys that understand the game and know how to play. He’s looking for kids that he can trust to have success when they get put into different situations.

“I love coaching those guys. I love guys that know how to play. That have a good pace about them,” Williams said. “I remember [former Oklahoma coach] Billy Tubbs always told me when you’re watching players, always pay attention to their glide. He wasn’t talking about their gait. What is their pace? What is their rhythm?”

“I think Jae’s glide is as good as any guy I’ve ever been around.”

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Whenever you hear stories about how a coach found a player that no one else was recruiting, there is always a story behind it; something sensational that the player accomplished while that coach happened to be standing on the sidelines. Like love at first sight, all it takes is one dunk or one no-look pass or one charge taken to realize ‘Hey, this kid’s going to be pretty good.’

What did Crowder do that caught Williams’ eye?

“Jae had three fouls in the first half, finished with three points and four boards,” Williams said. “He was awful. Played 10 minutes.”

Huh?

He did what?

Explain.

“Much has been written about all of the college coaches that I wrote as a kid. One of the college coaches of the 425 that I accumulated during my career was on the rise as a Division I coach. His name was Mark Adams. He was at UT-Pan American,” Williams, who is as good of a storyteller as you will come across in this business, said.

“Its almost role reversal. In some respects, some people think I’m on the rise. I get a call from one college coach I used to write, and he says ‘do you remember Mark Adams?’ I wrote him 400 letters, I remember him. ‘He’s the head coach at a JuCo and he loves you and he remembers you writing and he wants you to call him.'”

So Buzz called, and it turns out that Adams was the head coach at Howard College and wanted him to come check out Crowder, who Adams said was ‘the best player he’s ever coached.’ So Williams books a flight and takes in a game, and Crowder does absolutely nothing. It was bad enough that Adams came up to Williams after the game to apologize for the bad tip and poor showing.

As Williams tells it, “I said ‘Coach, I want him.’ He says ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘Coach, I was 19 years old and you were the rising star in Division I. I know you know what a player is more than I do. I trust you.'”

But there was more to it than simply trusting the instinct of a guy that was up-and-coming the better part of two decades ago.

“I saw Jae have the worst game he could have and he was by far the best teammate in the building,” Williams said. “He’s coaching, he’s on the bench waving towels, its a time out and he’s meeting them on the floor giving them dap.”

“He could play for me.”

The sticking point came in the form of the academics. Crowder had so much work to do and so little time to do it that actively recruiting him would hinder the likelihood that he would be able to get eligible immediately.

And, for Williams, this is where he got a bit lucky.

You see, Crowder’s father played for Kentucky Wesleyan when he was in college. Williams assistant coach Scott Monarch just so happened to cut his teeth Kentucky Wesleyan, acting as associate head coach when they won the Division II national title back in 1998. Once the two sides figured out that connection, the ball got rolling.

But Williams still wasn’t interested in chasing this kid if he didn’t want to come.

“I called Jae the next day,” Williams told me, “and said ‘Jae, I want you to come to Marquette. But I want you to understand that you have a lot of work to do academically. … I ain’t got time for all the glitz and glamour of recruiting. [You’re] my kind of guy, I promise you.'”

And he was right.

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Jae Crowder never ended up making an official visit to Marquette.

That might have been a good thing.

“If I knew it was this cold I would have had second guesses,” Crowder said with a smile before he headed out into yet another winter day in Milwaukee that never made it out of the teens. “But I’m dealing with it.”

Because that’s what Crowder does. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t get upset or make excuses. He rolls with the punches, making the best out of every situation.

“I did get dealt a bad hand and I know it was in God’s plan. But I learned a lot of things from that time period,” he said. “I don’t even regret what happened. I think [the time I spent at Howard] grew me up. It made me do the right things and handle my business.”

Not even two years of arctic temperatures could kill that spirit.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Marquette’s tough, but they have some talent on that roster as well

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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.”

Ok.

I’ll bite.

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.

Seriously.

They do.

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.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Marquette’s youth may be deciding factor vs. Wisconsin

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From last season to this season, Marquette looks like one of those bands that’s been on tour forever. By this point, they’ve only got a few core pieces left, but the product hasn’t changed and the success hasn’t waned.

They’ve moved on from Lazar Hayward. Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, and Wes Matthews are even longer gone. Jimmy Butler is the latest to leave the nest.

And through all that, coach Buzz Williams has his Golden Eagles at 6-0 and ranked 16th in the nation, with their first true challenge of the year coming Saturday night against in-state rival Wisconsin.

The offensive stats, so far this season, are gaudy for Marquette: top five in the nation in points per game, assists, and field goal percentage. But against who? Mount St. Mary’s, Winthrop, Ole Miss, Jacksonville, and Norfolk State (twice).

When the Golden Eagles take the floor against Wisconsin, it’ll be a different animal, all together.

The Badgers haven’t given up more than 57 points in a game this season, have held opponents below 43 five times, and, were it not for an 11-2 run down the stretch for North Carolina on Wednesday, could be sitting at 7-0. Against a team that slows the game down, like Wisconsin, patience and veteran experience could be key.

“We played with a bunch of young guys last year and to a large extent, we’re still young,” Williams said in a press conference Thursday. “We bring five guys off the bench that are all freshmen or sophomores. So we’re not necessarily an old team but we’re definitely older than we were last year.”

Despite seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder anchoring the scoring, they lost Butler to the NBA, seniors Dwight Buycks and Joseph Fulce to graduation, and Erik Williams and Reggie Smith to transfer.

That has forced Buzz Williams to rely on some underclassmen in supporting roles, including freshman guard Todd Mayo and sophomore guard Vander Blue.

“Going into our first big test against Wisconsin, I feel like we’re ready. I think we’re definitely ahead of where we were last year going into this game,” said Crowder. “We take the rivalry part out of it. I know I do. I don’t focus on the rivalry as much…but it’s a big game for us to set the tone going into the Big East season.”

In Wisconsin’s narrow loss to North Carolina, the Badgers rarely took a shot with more than 10 seconds on the shot clock, while forcing 14 Tar Heel turnovers and only turning it over, themselves, four times.

Against lesser teams, Marquette has used the turnover as a catalyst for a transition offense, forcing 19 versus Ole Miss and a whopping 27 against Mount St. Mary’s. With the frustratingly slow pace that Wisconsin will settle into, Marquette will have to resist the urge to force the issue and turn it over, which will play right into the Badgers’ hands.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to tell [the younger players] anything to try and get them riled up,” said Johnson-Odom. “The first thing I would say is it’s a game, like the rest of the games.”

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_