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Marquette not sexy, but winning is
The perception making the rounds lately is that college basketball needs more sexy. The game’s too boring; the coaches are too controlling; the best players never hang around for more than a year or two.
In this view, a team like Florida Gulf Coast, with its Dunk City meme and its historic Sweet 16 run, is the antidote to un-sexy basketball. So is a team like Indiana (the resurgence of a blueblood, the emergence of a charismatic and athletic star like Victor Oladipo). So is a team like Michigan (another blueblood’s resurgence, and the emergence of a preternaturally mature point guard in Trey Burke). And so is a team like Miami (the South Beach allure, the toss-it-off-the-glass alley oop, the sighting of LeBron and D-Wade in the stands).
At least, so was a team like Miami, until Thursday night, when the sexy Hurricanes fell flat on their faces in the school’s second-ever Sweet 16 appearance, falling to Marquette 71-61.
Buzz Williams is not sexy. The Marquette coach might be the exact opposite of sexy. Look up “sexy” in the dictionary and there’s an excellent chance, right next to where it says “antonym of sexy,” you’ll see Williams’ pasty, round mug and shaved head.
Buzz Williams has been known to coach games wearing plaid blazers that look as if they were sheared off your grandmother’s couch. Buzz Williams dips pouches of chewing tobacco in a sport that, unlike baseball, doesn’t exactly have a dipping culture. Buzz Williams looks as if he’s more fit to play Curly Howard in a “Three Stooges” remake than play the suave coaching genius. A video of Buzz Williams dancing near the bench after a dunk by his team was seen by 1.8 million people when it was posted on YouTube. This was not because Buzz Williams knows how to dance — not in any way, shape or form.
Buzz Williams’ teams do not play sexy basketball. Instead, they grind. They shove. They out-tough. They work hard for a layup in the paint instead of launching the 3 with 20 seconds left on the shot clock.
They also happen to win.
The utter lack of sexy basketball that Williams preaches was on display Thursday night, when his team took on the heretofore sexy and exciting Hurricanes and beat all the sexy out of them for 40 minutes straight. Marquette had four players in double-digits but no one with more than 16 points. Marquette shot a total of six 3-pointers all game, which is no surprise, since Marquette ranks 333rd of Division I’s 347 teams in percentage of points that comes from 3-pointers. Miami, on the other hand, shot 26 3-pointers, and its eight makes were the only reason the final score was close in a game that was never anywhere near that close.
“All the things we wanted to do — keep them out of the paint with their drives, keep them off the offensive boards, find the open man on our end and make some 3’s — we weren’t able to do any of those things,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said after the game. “You ever have days where you’re just out of sync? Where things don’t run along smoothly? Almost like our trip over here. Our hotel is a mile and a half away; it took us 45 minutes to get here. We had to go on nine different streets, weaving our way in and out, traffic and everything. That’s kind of how it seemed on the court. We were trying to find our way and never could.”
You could listen to Larranaga’s explanation and think, hey, Miami just didn’t have it tonight. The ’Canes kept taking good shots that nearly went in before popping back out. They were missing their leading rebounder, Reggie Johnson, their mountain of a center. Their point guard, Shane Larkin, had been throwing up the night before with an illness.
Or you could look at what really happened on the court: Marquette imposed its toughness upon a more talented, more hyped, more sexy team. This has been Marquette all season. The Golden Eagles haven’t done anything particularly well. They’re not the best shooting team, not the best defensive team, not the best team at penetrating the defense. They are pretty good at offensive rebounding, the ultimate statistic of toughness.
No, the only thing this team has done especially well is win.
“Toughness means to us getting up and showing up every day,” said forward Jamil Wilson, who had a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds. “Buzz’s favorite quote is, ‘Get up and ring the bell every day.’ We build toughness by going every day into practice and practicing hard. Trying not to give a day away, a shot away, a rep away. Because in the end of the day you’re gonna need that rep.”
They didn’t really need that rep on Thursday, because this game was won by halftime. It was won in the image of their short, sort-of pudgy, occasionally irascible, never-sexy coach. They didn’t look the part of an Elite Eight team in any way except their grit and grind, but through that grit and grind, they became an Elite Eight team.
The character of this team was formed before a game was played this season; not because it signed a bevy of five-star recruits, but instead because of something Williams calls his boot camp.
“It’s not really something you can explain in words,” Wilson said. “A whole lot of shoes squeaking, a whole lot of yelling, some guys falling out, a lot of barfing. But in the end of the day it’s well worth it. Coach says it, before boot camp starts, ‘It’s where we’re going to be made as a team. It’s where you guys are going to show your true colors.’ ”
Marquette showed its true colors on Thursday night, as did Williams. He knows his team isn’t a sexy team. He says he doesn’t want to be known as a coaching genius, doesn’t want his team known for being a tactical team, but would rather just be known as the toughest team out there. After the game, Williams talked about his rough edge. He’s not always kind to reporters. On game days, he pointed out, he’s not even kind to his family, because he’s so focused on winning that game.
He doesn’t really care if you think he’s isn’t refined enough, or question whether his team plays pretty enough.
“Regardless of the perception of me, of our team, whether we’re supposed to win, whether it’s supposed to be an ugly game — in the end none of those things matter,” Williams said after the game, having changed from his suit into a dumpy white polo. “What matters is the trust that was involved by most of those single-parent moms that said, ‘Buzz, I trust ya. Take care of my boy. ‘Cause he’s all I got.’ So regardless of my attitude toward you guys, I have to be accountable to those mothers. And in the end, that’s how I’m going to be judged.”
No, it really isn’t sexy, not at all. Instead, Buzz Williams and his Marquette team are something far more powerful, far more lasting, and far more meaningful, too.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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