Marquette players have faith in coach as Williams era begins
No first-year coach had as much self-imposed pressure to get 2009 commitments from impact players this offseason than Marquette's Buzz Williams.
First-year Providence coach Keno Davis is a close second, with six seniors. But the Friars need to get to the NCAA tournament first with this outgoing class to create a consistent winning trend.
That's not the case at Marquette. Senior guards Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews win: 25 games and a second-round NCAA tournament appearance as juniors; 24 games and a first-round NCAA tournament showing as sophomores; 20 games and a first-round tournament appearance as freshmen.
"It had to be a banner year no matter who the coach is,'' said Williams. "You can't just sign good players. I'm sure you have to sign potentially great players [in the Big East].''Class rankings sound good, but they don't always pan out. They are essentially predictions. But a positive perception about Williams' Marquette recruiting was a must. He got that when ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. ranked Marquette's class No. 5 so far for 2009, behind more traditional recruiting powers North Carolina, Villanova, Georgetown plus another top-five newcomer, Texas A&M.John Rieger/US PresswireSenior Dominic James said he already sees improvement in the team this season under Williams.
"We have to have a really balanced class, and they have to fit and have to have an impact right away,'' Williams said. "We have to be accountable this fall.''
The four commitments so far -- point guard Junior Cadougan (Christian Life Center Academy, Texas), 6-6 forward Jeronne Maymon (James Madison Memorial High, Wis.), 6-7 forward Erik Williams (Cypress Springs High, Texas) and 6-3 JC guard Dwight Buycks of Indian Hills CC (Iowa), a Milwaukee native -- represent the strengths of Williams and his top assistant Tony Benford and the lure of Marquette within the state.
Williams' roots are in Texas. He coached at three different Texas universities, notably under Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M for two seasons. Benford was hired by Williams to replace Williams' own spot on the staff once he was elevated to take over after Tom Crean left for Indiana. Benford played at Texas Tech, is from nearby Hobbs, N.M., and continuously mined Texas while he was an assistant at New Mexico, Arizona State and most recently, Nebraska.
It didn't go unnoticed. Marquette already has three Texas players on its roster who have an influence from Williams' presence -- sophomores Jimmy Butler and Joseph Fulce and freshman Chris Otule.
"In a way, it was already up there with Jimmy and Chris, and now with me and [Cadougan] from Texas, it's going to end up where there is a lot of guys from Texas ending up there,'' said Erik Williams. Cadougan is playing high school basketball in the Lone Star State even though he is originally from Ontario, Canada.
"In the Big East, you can't just recruit a specific area -- and yes, we'll recruit the state of Wisconsin, and yes, we'll go to Texas on an annual basis, but Wisconsin and Texas won't be enough to compete in the Big East,'' Buzz Williams said. "But you always go where you have relationships.''
Williams said the face of the program the past three seasons has been the guards: McNeal, Matthews and James. But the deficiency has been the imbalance.
"Yes, we have to replace three really, really good guards, but we also have to make sure from an interior perspective that we create more of a balance both ways,'' Williams said. "We're not done yet. We're not going to have a large recruiting class. We're a little behind in the 2010 class because we had to make up so much ground this fall in the 2009 class.''
"We didn't need a coach to come in and revamp and change what we did. Coach Buzz had been here a year and understands what our team is about.
"We take a lot of pride in this, even after we'll be gone from Marquette,'' McNeal said. "We've got our program back where we're one of the top 25 programs in the country year in and year out. I definitely want that tradition to carry on.''
James said that recruiting well in the fall was "huge" for Williams. "He didn't want to take any steps back. He wants to build a program that will win just like me, Jerel and Wes built. I know they're working really hard on the recruiting trail to sign players. I definitely feel obligated to help. My job as a player is to sell the university and the team. I feel it is my job and my responsibility.''
The players do take ownership of the program. That's why they felt it was a necessity to hire Williams when Crean abruptly left for Indiana.
"We didn't need a coach to come in and revamp and change what we did,'' McNeal said. "We didn't need another [outside] coach being here. Coach Buzz had been here a year and understands what our team is about.''
But skepticism was genuine about Williams taking over at Marquette. Williams agreed that it was fair game to question his hiring after one season as head coach at New Orleans. Williams suddenly quit at UNO in July 2007 after being frustrated with the slow progress of the post-Katrina repairs to the program, notably with Lakefront Arena and other traditional day-to-day operational amenities. Crean hired him because of his strong recruiting rep, especially to Texas.
"I don't know if I've proven myself,'' Williams said. "Of the 16 coaches in the Big East, I'm going to be the new kid on the block.''
Williams said he will be judged by how he handles the roster left to him and how the roster stacks up against the Big East in two or three years.
"That's completely fair,'' Williams said. "I don't disagree with that and I don't take offense to that.''
McNeal and James do. They don't doubt Williams one bit."Every day he holds me accountable,'' James said. "We haven't skipped a beat.''Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSenior guard Jerel McNeal was happy to see Williams take over the program rather than someone new to the team.
James said the last thing he was expecting was for Crean to leave with the core of the team returning after the overtime loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament's second round this past March in Anaheim, Calif. James is from Indiana, so he understood the significance of Crean's decision to be a Hoosier, but it worked out well for James. He made a rather surprising statement: Crean has been known for his tough practices, yet James said Williams' repetition in individual drill sessions on defensive work has already made an impression.
"That's the first time we worked on doing zigzag defensive drills in individual workouts going from end line to end line,'' James said. "That type of perfection is paying off and the whole team is buying it. I'm into it.''
James went as far as to say that if Williams had recruited him four years ago as the Marquette head coach, he would have been sold.
Questioning Williams' credentials doesn't wash with James.
"Who knew about Coach Crean before he got here?'' said James about Crean getting the Marquette job off Tom Izzo's staff at Michigan State. "He turned the program around. Coach Buzz isn't here to fill Crean's shoes. He knows what he has to do. He doesn't care if anyone knows Buzz's name.''
McNeal said the criticism is essentially irrelevant because "players win games."
Still, the players apparently needed to get fundamentally tougher, according to McNeal. Working on the basics every day will make them one of the tougher teams in the country. That's the tonic the Golden Eagles are drinking from at this point.
And so far, it's working.
"We were one shot away from beating Stanford and going to the Sweet 16,'' McNeal said. "Our main goal is to get to the Sweet 16 again, build on the momentum and get to the Final Four.''
Of course, they're saying the right things prior to the season. But everyone is in line. And as teams at the bottom of the Big East wait for someone in the top eight -- a team such as Marquette -- to fall back to the pack, Williams and his staff are trying to ensure that doesn't occur.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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