'No-name' Marquette makes itself known
March, 20, 2011
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com
CLEVELAND -- In the middle of the celebratory Marquette locker-room scrum stood Buzz Williams, stripped down to an undershirt over his dress pants. Williams then ripped off his tank top and went into the coaches' area. A moment later, he ran back into the locker room, bare-chested and sweaty, to shout "Sweet 16!"
Maybe that's not the demeanor or behavior you'd expect from Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Calhoun after a big NCAA tournament win. But Williams is not the typical college basketball coach. And Marquette is not your typical Sweet 16 team.
It's a collection of former junior college players and other under-the-radar guys playing in the nation's premier league, for a coach who understands humble beginnings.
"We're a great team with a bunch of no-names," guard Dwight Buycks said.
Syracuse might agree with the first part of that statement, but not necessarily the latter half. The No. 3 seed Orange lost to the No. 11 seed Golden Eagles for the second time this year in Sunday's 66-62 East Regional third-round upset.
Marquette got it done with effort. Syracuse shot 55.3 percent from the field. But the Golden Eagles hounded the Orange into 18 turnovers by doubling the post and pressuring the ball. They raced up the court every time they got a stop or even after a made bucket, getting good looks before the 2-3 zone could formulate. They outrebounded their bigger opponent 30-24, including 12 offensive rebounds.
"Our goal was not to let them set up," guard Junior Cadougan said. "We wanted to push it down their backs and make something happen while their backs were turned."
Jae Crowder hit a 3-pointer to tie the score at 59, and Darius Johnson-Odom nailed the go-ahead 3-pointer with 25.1 seconds left. Both guys came to Marquette from junior college, as did Buycks and defensive stopper Jimmy Butler. Cadougan is from Canada.
Now this group is heading to a blueblooded Sweet 16 in the East Regional, joining the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State.
"It's four junior college guys up here," Williams said on the postgame podium, sitting next to Crowder, Butler and Johnson-Odom. "We were trying to figure out if we could eat at McDonald's or Burger King. We weren't sure what Sweet 16 meant other than it was our 16th birthday."
Williams is understandably drawn to those types of players. He got his start as a student assistant at Navarro College and Oklahoma City University. On Saturday, he recounted the story of how he got his first paying job at Texas-Arlington, which included all but stalking the UTA coach, sleeping in a U-Haul and conniving Oklahoma City into giving him his diploma early.
So the underdog nature comes naturally. Marquette needed it coming into this tournament after going just 7-8 in its previous 15 games and carrying 14 losses on the résumé. The Golden Eagles were the last of 11 teams from the Big East to make the field, and if the committee had to rethink things based on the way the league has fared so far, maybe they would be in the NIT. Ironically, the East Regional semifinals will be played in Newark, N.J., on the same court where Marquette lost to lowly Seton Hall on the last day of the regular season.
Yet here this team is after an impressive win over No. 6 seed Xavier on Friday and after toppling a No. 3 Sunday. The Golden Eagles played with an edge all weekend in Cleveland.
"Buzz is a great coach, and his toughness shows in us," Johnson-Odom said. "As much as he's been through, and as much as the players have been through, the only way we can show it is on the court. I think that's why we play so hard."
After the final horn sounded, Williams made the TV crew wait for the postgame interview. He ran up through the press seating and into the Marquette cheering section, where he hugged his wife, Corey, and their children. He later talked about how they met when he was a Division II assistant and how he took a job at Colorado State 18 days after she moved in with him as his wife.
"He went to juco and has been through that experience," Buycks said. "We've all come in through different paths, and he can relate to that. He knows how it feels to not be granted success right away."
Clear some room in the Sweet 16 for these Golden Eagles. They made their own way there.