MILWAUKEE — At the top of the rankings in college basketball, nearly all the best teams in the country are being led by high school All-Americans and players who have been considered can’t-miss prospects since they were 15 years old.
But at No. 12 Marquette, the Golden Eagles are being led by two players who were afterthoughts by most college scouts.
Seniors Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, both of whom began their careers in junior college, are combining to average more than 34 points a game as Marquette sits in second place in the Big East with five conference games to play.
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Crowder and Johnson-Odom were far from prized prospects in high school. Johnson-Odom was dominant at Wakefield High School in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., where he was the Most Valuable Player of his state champion-winning team as a junior. Yet, he struggled getting much attention from Division I college coaches.
Crowder was thought of even less. The 6-foot-6 power forward with a soft touch from three-point range didn’t have a single scholarship offer after being a two-sport star in Villa Rica, Ga. Like Johnson-Odom, he took his game to junior college first. After a strong freshman season where he was named as a second-team All-American by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), Crowder still didn’t get any scholarship offers. However, after becoming the 2010 NJCAA Player of the Year, Marquette and others finally took notice.
“For two guys that were never ranked in a scouting service by any scouting service, for them to be where they’re at in their careers speaks to who they are,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said.
Once Williams was promoted to be the head coach of the Golden Eagles in 2008, he had his eyes on the junior college ranks. Not only did he find Johnson-Odom and Crowder, but he also coached former junior college player Jimmy Butler, who was a first-round pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls.
“I root for guys that are playing from behind,” Williams said. “I root for guys that don’t have a white-picket fence and a puppy dog in the front yard. I root for those guys, and I seem to coach those guys better because their story is reflective of mine.”
Williams was raised in very humble conditions in a tiny Texas town called Van Alstyne with a population of 3,000 people. So, when the 39-year-old head coach saw Crowder and Johnson-Odom fighting their way through junior college with little recognition, he knew he could help them take the next step at Marquette.
“When they get a t-shirt, they look you in the eyes and say, ‘I really appreciate it. Thank you,'” Williams said. “When you say, ‘Hook up, let’s go to work,’ they understand what work is. Our juco guys have been pretty good on and off the floor since they’ve been here, but because their path says they’re not supposed to, nobody will ever give them the credit they’re deserving of.”
Both Crowder and Johnson-Odom did finally get some credit after breakout seasons in junior college. Crowder’s Player of the Year honors as a sophomore at Howard College gave him the ability to choose between scholarship offers from Marquette, UNLV, Georgia or Texas Tech.
Johnson-Odom, who only had interest from a few mid-major conference schools such as Appalachian State in high school, now could choose between Marquette, Cincinnati, Florida, North Carolina State, Miami and Georgia Tech, among many others.
“Me and Jae really don’t care what outsiders think,” Johnson-Odom said. “Our mentality is to come out and get wins. We put ourselves in position to play at a high level playing for Marquette, a program that’s very prestigious in a lot of ways.
“For us, that was just something we had to overcome, playing at junior college. We’re at another level now and we’re just trying to make the best of it.”
They’ve had success so far as the two star players on this year’s Marquette team, a group that is trying to do even better than its Sweet 16 appearance last season.
“I think we can go pretty far,” Johnson-Odom said. “We still have to keep working. We have to stay focused.”
Not only are the two former junior college players leading Marquette in scoring, but Crowder is leading the team in rebounding and steals while Johnson-Odom has connected on a team-best 40 percent from three-point range. All of this while also being the only two Golden Eagles playing more than 30 minutes a game.
“I think that they have an edge about them that’s unspoken, similar to the edge that I have,” Williams said. “I think it’s remarkable if you really study it, and it’s been a lot of fun being around them. They’ve helped make me a better person. They’ve definitely helped me grow as a coach.
“They’re two really, really good players that I think have a brighter future than any scouting service guy ever thought, considering they didn’t know who they were.”
While Johnson-Odom and Crowder are now roommates at Marquette, Williams hasn’t been recruiting junior college players over the past two years since Crowder’s commitment to the program. But Williams sounds like he may want to change that in order to find his next star.
“Hopefully we can continue to string this out because I want to continue to be around them,” Williams said. “I really enjoy coaching them. We need to get a couple more juco guys to replace them.”