Crowder’s breakthrough season powers Marquette

Jae Crowder hadn’t spent much time around snow before.

Safe to say, had he paid a visit to Marquette before he

committed, he might be in a very different place this week.

”I hate (winter), still hate it to this day,” Crowder, who

grew up in Villa Rica, Ga., said Wednesday. ”I dislike it, but I

deal with it.”

And the Golden Eagles are thrilled he does.

The Big East player of the year, Crowder has been the catalyst

for Marquette’s best season since Dwyane Wade took the Golden

Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. Marquette is 25-7 going into

Thursday’s second-round game against BYU, and its No. 3 seed

matches the school record.

”It’s hard to quantify what he’s meant to us,” coach Buzz

Williams said. ”We won 22 games last year, and won 25 thus far

this year. I don’t know that we could have won any of those games

without what he brought to our team.”

Much like Wade, Crowder was overlooked coming out of high

school. Though his father played professional basketball for 14

years – two seasons in the NBA followed by 12 in Europe – Crowder

was as interested in football as he was basketball early on. In

fact, his father didn’t even think Crowder was paying attention

when the youngster tagged along to summer pickup games.

But Crowder was watching. Closely, in fact.

”That sparked something in me,” he said. ”It made me want to

play basketball.”

With no big schools interested, Crowder went first to South

Georgia Tech, a junior college, in the hope he could play his way

onto a bigger stage. He led South Georgia Tech to an appearance in

the national tournament, and a Division I scholarship seemed

certain to follow.

But there was a problem, and it was a big one: South Georgia

Tech wasn’t accredited, meaning none of the work he did in his year

there counted.

If he wanted to play at a Division I school, he’d have to

transfer to another junior college and start over, essentially

cramming two years of classes into one.

”I told him, `It’s difficult, but it’s doable,”’ Corey Crowder

said. ”In my book, as long as it’s doable, no matter how much work

you’ve got to do, you’ve got to do it to get where you want to

go.”

Crowder transferred to Howard College, where he led the school

to its first national title and was named the junior college player

of the year. Now he had the interest of schools everywhere, with

coaches making him all kinds of promises.

One, however, would not.

”(Williams) said, `If you want to play for someone who’s on

your (butt) every day, come play for me,” Crowder said. ”If you

want someone to be soft on you, go elsewhere.”

It was the same kind of message he’d been hearing from his

father for years – ”If you’re willing to put in the time and put

in the work, good things will happen for you” – and Crowder was

sold.

Never mind that he had never been to Marquette’s campus, and had

no idea just how brutal Midwest winters can be.

”Freezing. FREE-ZING!” Crowder said, laughing. ”It just

snowed, like, last week.”

Because he was still trying to get caught up academically,

Crowder couldn’t spend the summer in Milwaukee and arrived on

campus just as the school year started. He had a decent year,

starting about half the games and averaging almost 12 points and

seven rebounds as the Golden Eagles made a run to the Sweet

Sixteen.

But anyone who watched the Golden Eagles could see he wasn’t

anywhere close to his potential.

”I think everybody knew he could play,” Darius Johnson-Odom

said. ”(But) he wasn’t engaged. He didn’t really understand the

pace and the play that we played at at Marquette, but he was

obviously one of our top players.”

Being one of the top players wasn’t enough, however. Crowder

wanted more – both for himself and for the Golden Eagles.

”Your last year in college, you just want to get further and

have a better season than you did collectively the year before,”

Crowder said. ”Individually, I just wanted to have all my numbers

on the defensive end and the offensive end go up.”

He spent last summer in the gym with his father, working on his

offensive game and trying to be more aggressive defensively, and

the improvement was noticeable.

Crowder finished in the top 10 in the Big East in both scoring

and rebounding, averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, and was

second in the league with 2.4 steals a game. But it was down the

stretch that he was at his best.

In the Golden Eagles’ wild comeback against Villanova on Jan.

28, Crowder capped the 10-point run that got Marquette back into

the game with a 3-pointer as he fell, and finished with 20 points

and 11 rebounds. Three days later, with Wade and LeBron James

sitting courtside, Crowder had another double-double with 20 points

and 12 rebounds.

And over the last seven games, when Marquette was fighting to

lock up one of the top spots in the league, Crowder averaged 23.1

points, 9.4 points and three steals.

”We know he’s a great player,” BYU’s Brandon Davies said.

”It’s going to take a lot to get him stopped.”

Crowder, however, has no intention of slowing down.

Not when he’s so close to accomplishing everything he set out to

do this year.

”That kid hasn’t scratched the surface of his abilities yet,”

Corey Crowder said. ”I don’t think we’ve seen the best of

him.”

Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour