MILWAUKEE (AP) - Buzz Williams knows having a roster filled with former junior college players sticks out a bit, especially when facing a blue blood program like North Carolina.
Having humble roots is a source of pride for Williams and his players, who embrace the idea that they had to work harder than marquee recruits at glitzier schools to get where they are today.
Still, Williams would much rather talk about who his players are and where they’re going _ a surprise NCAA tournament regional semifinal matchup with the Tar Heels on Friday night _ than dwell on where they came from.
“Whether they’re junior college or high school or transfers, whatever that is, to endure the culture that we have here, you have to have something to you as a human,” Williams said. “Does that mean that you’re more hungry because you’ve maybe not had some of the same things that some other kids have had? There’s probably some truth to that. But I don’t ever want it to be so stereotypical.”
Marquette has made six straight NCAA tournaments, the last three under Williams, who took over in 2008 when his former boss, Tom Crean, left for Indiana. But this is the first time Marquette has made it to the round of 16 since Crean’s Dwyane Wade-led team made the Final Four in 2003.
And with his team now commanding a little more national attention, Williams is getting more questions about his roster. Key Golden Eagles players Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Dwight Buycks and Joseph Fulce all had stints in junior college.
So, for that matter, did Williams, whose start in coaching came at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.
After Marquette beat Big East rival Syracuse on Sunday, Williams noted that there were “four junior college guys up here” _ himself, Johnson-Odom, Crowder and Butler _ on the postgame interview stage.
“We were trying to figure out if we could eat at McDonald’s or Burger King,” Williams said. “We weren’t sure what Sweet 16 meant other than it was our 16th birthday.”
That’s still a source of pride, but Williams now would prefer to downplay the issue.
“I think you have to be careful, because you become very stereotypical when you start identifying guys in accordance of where they went to school, where they’re from,” Williams said. “I think that’s really dangerous.”
For their part, Marquette players are grateful to Williams for giving them a shot at big-time college basketball when plenty of programs wouldn’t have given them a second look.
“I think it just makes everybody work a little bit harder,” Butler said. “Coming out of high school, going to junior college, you either didn’t have the grades or didn’t have the exposure. So now, the NCAA tournament’s just another way of trying to make your dream come true, so to speak.”
So why aren’t other programs more receptive to junior college players?
“You only get three years or two years with that player,” Crowder said. “I feel that’s why a coach may not take (a junior college player), or they feel like the player’s not developed enough. Different reasons. But Buzz has his ways. He realizes that there’s talent in that area, and he puts his trust in you, so you have to put it in him and compete every day.”
Johnson-Odom said Williams’ attitude toward junior college players shows he’s different from other college coaches.
“He understands where we came from as kids,” Johnson-Odom said. “A lot of guys were less fortunate. They didn’t have as many things as other people have. And a lot of junior college guys had to fight their way into programs. You don’t really see that much success with a lot of junior college kids. And Buzz, he installs that success in you.
“He makes you believe that you can do it. You just love him as a coach, he’s a great person off the court and he teaches you about life.”
Crowder said humble roots give the Golden Eagles an edge.
“You’re very hungry. You’re not satisfied,” Crowder said. “Coming out of high school, a lot of guys go straight from high school to this level. And you can just be complacent with where you’re at. But we’re not satisfied. You’re not happy. You just feel like you’ve got to keep working, keep working, because that’s all you did to get to this point. That’s to our advantage.”
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