MERNAGH: MARQUETTE MAKING MOVES UNDER BUZZ WILLIAMS
By Ray Mernagh
Marquette seems primed, maybe more than any other Big East squad in that 5-10 league position, for next-step status. The still-Warriors (at least to this writer) have gone to three straight tournaments, including last year’s Sweet Sixteen appearance. Buzz Williams and his staff have explored just about every corner of the country, not to mention every level available to them, in recruiting and have managed to infuse the Jesuit-run institution with talent capable of playing at a high level.
But with the recent commitments of 2012 face-up big forward Steve Taylor (Chicago/Illinois’ top prospect in his class) and 2013 man-child Deonte Burton (a Milwaukee city kid now balling for Jason Smith at Brewster Academy) Williams seems to be locked in on bigger and better accomplishments in seasons 4, 5 and 6 of his tenure. Throw in 6’8″ transfer Jamil Wilson, eligible this season, and a return to Marquette’s glory days, when they were beating Carolina for championships, seems doable (fast forward to 2:18 on the youtube for a breakdown from my mother’s all-time favorite announcer). It’s funny because just last Spring, if you listened to the experts, it appeared as if Williams might be ready to catch the first thing smoking out of some remote airfield in Whitefish Bay.
At the end of last season there was indeed some worry among the faithful that Marquette‘s most popular coach since Al McGuire might head back closer to his Van Alstyne, Texas roots. AD Steve Cottingham though, before stepping down, locked Williams up with a deal that not only compensates him for what he’s achieved so far, but also pays him the kind of money that comes with the understanding that bigger things are expected going forward. And Williams, again maybe more than any MU coach since McGuire, seems to understand that Marquette can be a real special place when it comes to building a basketball program.
McGuire managed to rack up a record of 295-80 while winning two National Titles. For the armchair editors out there let me make it clear that I’m counting Marquette‘s 1969-70 NIT Title as well as their NCAA Title. If you’re asking why all I can say is A) the Warriors were 26-3 that year and B) you need to bone up and learn some college hoop history because the NIT was a huge deal at that time (unlike what it was by the time a Tom Crean coached squad got drilled by Western Michigan years later).
To be fair, Crean did a fantastic job at Marquette, whether it was pushing for improvements at the University in terms of facilities, getting the Dwyane Wade-led bunch to the Final Four, or shepherding the program into the Big East. Then he bounced for Indiana, leaving Marquette hearts everywhere pained with his “It’s Indiana, It’s Indiana” quote.
But for all the debate about the way Crean left, there remains one fact (in addition to the ones listed above) that should keep him on the +side of the ledger with his former fan-base: He hired Buzz Williams. If Crean hadn’t plucked Williams to come join his staff from New Orleans, who knows what happens with Marquette basketball the last few years. Hires are always dicey, you never really know — until you know — and at that point it’s either one of two scenarios: Glad we got that right or What the hell were we thinking?
Ultimately the credit goes to Cottingham for pulling the trigger on the Williams hire, and, since we’re discussing the recently departed one, has there been a better interim hire in college sports administration than Cottingham was in 2007? Talk about stepping up in times of adversity, Cottingham saw them through Crean’s departure, made the ballsy choice to hire an assistant he knew was right for the job and then got the hotter-than-July coach to re-up with a sweet deal that, given Cottingham’s legal mind, no doubt protects MU financially.
Now, it’s Williams’ baby, and judging from the talent he has currently in the program, and the future duo that just may attract a prime-time big to join them, the Texan plans on raising the baby right. Let’s start with the kid I’m most familiar with — Deonte Burton. Saw him for the first time in the spring of 2009 I believe. A friend of mine, who at the time was a JUCO coach pointed him out and said “this kid’s a left-handed Dwyane Wade Ray!” Yes, I swear to God that’s the comparison he made. And, for a 13 or 14-year-old kid, it was an apt description. Burton kind of glided/stalked his way all over the court. Each rebound the kid corralled resulted in a DeJuan Blair type “thwack” sound emanating from his hands meeting leather. He found cutters with beautiful passes and flat-out overpowered kids 4-5 inches taller before dunking on them. He reminded me of a combination of Harold Miner and Wayman Tisdale, but that was a few years ago. What’s Burton like now? For that I hit up Antonio Curro, a veteran scout and owner of the NY2LA Scouting Service, to fill us in.
“Burton is a huge get,” says Curro, “in that they land a top 25-50 national recruit wing with a college ready body, power, athleticism and toughness who continues to improve his perimeter game and explosiveness. Taylor is a high profile talent from Chicago with size, length and range who just knows how to play.” Jason Smith, the coach at Brewster Academy, says Marquette put a lot of work into getting a commitment from Burton.
“Marquette had been recruiting Deonte for about a year,” says Smith, “Tony Benford was his lead recruiter.” I asked Smith what part of Burton’s game has grown since he got to the hyper-competitive and talented program at Brewster?
“He’s really improved his perimeter skills and will continue to improve in that area over his last two years of high school.” So with Taylor and Burton on the way over the next few years, the future is pretty bright at Marquette. Could Williams and his staff, who a lot of folks believe have collected a team that will win 25-plus games this year, be ready to finally grab a difference-making big? It’s a tricky question, because there just aren’t that many “elite” bigs to go around. But Curro, with his eyes firmly on the future classes of 2013 and 2014, thinks it could easily happen.
“The 2013 class is so deep in both Illinois and Wisconsin,” says Curro, “you’re talking probably 9-10 high major interior guys between both states and then Texas’ 2014 class is loaded as well. The way Buzz and his guys get after it recruiting they’ll be checking on a lot of them.” The upcoming season is full of promise due to the returners like DJO (first-team Big East guy IMHO), Jae Crowder, and the always-improving Chris Otule and Junior Cadougan.
Vander Blue had his freshman struggles but he’s still very capable of breaking out, plus Williams has some appetizing newcomers in his freshmen class. The guy who should be the newcomer with the greatest impact though is the 6’7/6’8″ Wilson, who started an awful lot of games his freshman season at Oregon and was a top-30/50 player nationally coming out of high school. “He’s an athletic wing who runs the floor and can beat you inside and out,” says Curro. “If Jamil Wilson works the way he should work to get better, the sky is the limit for the kid. He has a 7-foot-plus wingspan and he can fly and shoot the three.” Several folks I trust believe Wilson, if he works over the next few years, will eventually be a first-round pick.
So Marquette fans should be as geeked-up as their coach is when he sees DJO tip-dunk on some poor kid’s dome. Character, toughness, and fun have been the things that come to my mind often as I’ve watched the last three Marquette teams play. How much they can continue to be about those things as they add to the talent already there will determine whether they continue to trend upward as a program.
If I were a betting man I know one thing — I wouldn’t bet against them trending in the positive direction. The coach is as obsessed with getting the most out of his players as any coach in the country. It will be a fun group to continue to study.
September is here and individuals and fall recruiting are right around the corner.
October is the start of practice.
November is game time.
I can’t wait.