Thursday, March 22, 2012
West preview: Marquette vs. Florida
By Eamonn Brennan
PHOENIX -- A lesson to those still getting to know Marquette coach Buzz Williams:
If you give him a chance to be self-deprecating, he will take it. Boy, will he ever take it.
Asked Wednesday how he would compare himself to the three other coaches in this region -- Florida's Billy Donovan, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Louisville's Rick Pitino -- Williams didn't hesitate to draw the differences. And, as usual, he came prepared with numbers to buttress his case.
"Coach Donovan has won 27 NCAA tournament games," Williams said. "Coach Izzo has won 37. Coach Pitino has won 40. All of them have won national championships. All of them have coached in the [NBA] or decided they didn't want to coach in the league. And the league that I should be in is the Lone Star Conference, a Division II league in Texas. I should be an assistant in that league. So I don't belong. I don't compare.
"I wish that would have been a question on the SAT. I wouldn't have had to go to junior college. [On] the word association on the SAT, I would have gotten that right."
This is the Buzz college hoops fans have come to know the past four seasons: a witty, effusive presence who dresses to impress on the sideline (Williams says his one non-basketball hobby is clothes: "I really like looking at different shirts and ties and suits and gear"), dances when his players dunk (just YouTube it), dances to West Virginia's "Country Roads" in Morgantown (for which Williams again apologized Wednesday), and who, despite all the fun, works so relentlessly that in 2010 he was told by a doctor at the Mayo Clinic he would "die a very early death" unless he dedicated himself to getting more sleep.
"He's very enthusiastic about what he does," senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom says of Marquette coach Buzz Williams, above.
Williams' edge is borne of his beginnings. He earned his nickname during his time at Navarro College, when Navarro coach Lewis Orr remarked that Williams constantly "buzzed" around the men's basketball program at the Texas school. At 21, Williams landed his first coaching job by first camping in a hotel lobby at the Final Four and then, ultimately, outside the house of University of Texas-Arlington coach Eddie McCarter.
Now 39 and four years into his tenure at Marquette, Williams has reconfigured an already successful hoops program in his image. Last season, Williams' first trip to the Sweet 16 came thanks to four former junior college players: Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks. Butler was drafted last season and Buycks graduated, but Crowder and Johnson-Odom remain, not only as senior leaders but as two of the top five contenders for Big East player of the year.
Crowder won the award, but Johnson-Odom was just as qualified. Together, they lead a team whose identity stems from its coach, and vice versa.
"There's no telling what you might see from our coach," Johnson-Odom said. "He's very enthusiastic about what he does. I think that's why a lot of people love him. When you have that much energy, to show your guys that 'I'm here for you guys,' the coach just wants to win because of the stuff he has been through as a coach. As his players, I think it's a joy to see."
Williams also brings another element to the table, one occasionally lost in the talk about shirt-tie combos and junior colleges and "Country Roads" -- few head coaches in the country are as open and fluent in the language of tempo-free statistics. To wit, of Florida, Williams said Wednesday:
"There's very few teams -- everybody knows that they lead the country in 3-point field goal makes, but there's very few teams that have that offensive rebounding percentage and at the same time have those offensive efficiency-type numbers. So it's as potent an offensive team as I've studied this year."
This isn't just manna for college hoops nerds (though we'll certainly take it); it's also a key reason Williams finds himself wedged in a West Region with three of college basketball's most successful coaches, just two winnable games away from the Final Four.
To get there, of course, his team will first and foremost have to handle Florida's aforementioned potent offense. The good news? Marquette's perimeter defense is among the best units remaining in the tournament; since Feb. 24, only one team (BYU) has shot better than 28 percent from beyond the arc against the Golden Eagles. That may be the key matchup in Thursday's second game in Phoenix (10:17 p.m. ET), and the one that could push Williams further than he's ever been in his head coaching career: to the Elite Eight.
Whatever happens, the matchup of two speedy, guard-oriented teams should be one of the tournament's best to date -- a reprise of Marquette's thrilling, hard-fought win over Murray State in the round of 32.
And if Williams' team wins, maybe we'll even see a little dance.
"How could you not love a guy like that?" Johnson-Odom said.
Who to watch
Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom: DJO's offensive skills are well-documented, but where he will be especially important is on the defensive end. Florida's guards fire more 3s than most, and the Gators' offense -- which relies on ball screens and spacing and minimal post opportunities for forward Patric Young -- has to be efficient from distance to make up for what has been for much of the season a merely mediocre defense.
Florida's Kenny Boynton: Boynton has quietly had a stellar season, at least on the offensive end. There are plenty of worthy guards on this team -- from diminutive senior Erving Walker to likely lottery pick freshman Bradley Beal to former Rutgers transfer and bench spark plug Mike Rosario -- but Boynton's consistency has made him the most indispensable part of Florida's attack.
What to watch
Florida's defense: Florida's somewhat disappointing regular season -- at least relative to preseason expectations and the immense talent of its personnel -- had much to do with a defense that couldn't force stops or turnovers and would fall behind when UF's outside shooting hit occasional (though rare) slumps. But the Gators have shown signs of a postseason turnaround. In their two NCAA tournament victories, they allowed their opponents (Virginia and Norfolk State) a mere .71 and .77 points per possession, respectively. But is that improvement real, or the product of meager opposition? We know Marquette will come to play on defense, and we know the Golden Eagles are capable of scoring in bunches on the other end. Whether Florida has made legitimate defensive strides will almost certainly decide who goes home Thursday night.