MILWAUKEE — There’s a clear way that Marquette University has played basketball since Buzz Williams took over as head coach in 2008.
No matter his team’s talent level, Williams is an expert at getting his players to believe they aren’t good enough to win without extreme effort.
That’s why his program has made two straight appearances in the Sweet 16, and though Marquette perhaps was less talented than some of the teams it beat to get that far, the Golden Eagles have placed quite a few players in the NBA recently.
But Marquette doesn’t have NBA talent on its current roster. More than their predecessors, this year’s Golden Eagles truly have to play to Williams’ style. Always ready with an analogy, Williams had one Saturday after his team upset No. 15 Georgetown, 49-48, to move to 2-0 in the Big East and fully put a disappointing non-conference season in the past.
Williams compared a college basketball season to building a house. Previous Marquette teams had successfully built the house, and this year’s team felt as if it could just live in it, forgetting it needs to build its own dwelling.
“You get so caught up and say, ‘Well, I’m going to skip this step because I’m already here,’ but you can’t skip a step,” Williams said. “If you live off your inheritance, at some point you are going to go broke. I think they are realizing they have to earn their own, and we have to earn our own. It’s great what we’ve been able to accomplish in our tenure here. It’s superlative in a lot of ways.”
Something clicked Tuesday when the Golden Eagles had to claw their way to an overtime win over UConn. Marquette carried that toughness over to Saturday. In a struggle against one of the best defensive teams in the nation, the Golden Eagles again made the effort plays to win.
Since an embarrassing Dec. 19 loss to UW-Green Bay, Marquette is 4-0 and playing its best basketball of the season.
“Just knowing that we can lose to a team that’s not really good and we can beat one of the best teams in the nation, it’s our choice,” Marquette point guard Junior Cadougan said. “It’s how we come to work every day, and everything depends on our energy. Are we going to come to the game with high energy and play every possession as hard as we can, or are we going to let up and think that we are good enough to take off possessions? It’s on us, really.”
A 2-0 start to conference play is everything Marquette hoped for, but the Golden Eagles realize both of the last two games could have gone in the loss column.
What if Cadougan hadn’t made the 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Connecticut game to overtime? What if Georgetown forward Greg Whittington made the third free throw Saturday with two seconds left to force overtime?
“Both (teams) worked so hard (both games),” Marquette guard Trent Lockett said. “It’s just one little thing between us having a great night tonight and going into tomorrow and them having a bad plane ride home.”
At this time last week, the Golden Eagles looked like a team that would have to overachieve in conference play to even get to the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. Now, at 11-3, they’re looking more and more like Williams’ past two teams.
“The only chance we have is to play like we are about to be pushed off a cliff and this possession is so monumental,” Williams said. “I do believe they are starting to figure that out.
“Is that good enough? I don’t know. It’s easy to talk when you win by a point or you win in overtime. It’s easy to talk. But those questions are completely different if the reverse had happened. Man, you have to be hungry.”