Marquette University improved to 3-1 on the year Thursday night with a 58-53 win over the University of New Hampshire, out of the America East Conference. It was a win, but an ugly one. After going up 21-5 with less than 10 minutes to go in the first half, the Golden Eagles "lost" the rest of the game 48-37.
After the game, Marquette head coach Buzz Williams met with the assorted media for about 20 minutes.
He didn’t want this story to be about his players going 4 for their last 40 from 3-point range, or that they followed up an 18 percent shooting effort against Ohio State with a 32 percent night against New Hampshire.
He didn’t want this story to be about how his team had not yet earned the right to make those shots, either, which could be done through ball movement and getting a "paint touch" at least once per possession.
He did want New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion to be noted, at least in a single sentence, that the veteran coach and his scrappy Wildcats gave the Golden Eagles all they could handle by smartly playing zone and making enough shots to put a scare into Marquette. So, there’s that.
Williams also said it probably wasn’t good that he was so transparent with the media, that he shouldn’t tell us what he told his players: that they weren’t "playing near hard enough," that they had to break it down and rediscover what Marquette basketball was about.
"We have to get back to how we laid the foundation in the time that we’ve been here, and how we’ve built the foundation in the time we’ve been here because somewhere along the way, and I’m at the front of the line, there has become a disconnect in how we function," he said.
He was asked how the disconnect came about.
"I’m not sure," Williams replied. "That was the reason for my delay (in meeting the media), in talking to the team. I’m not sure where the disconnect happened. But I have to be at the front of that. That’s not to put it on the kids."
I’m not sure if that’s good or bad for his team, the transparency about what he said in the locker room or not wanting to put it on the kids – we couldn’t ask any of them, since none were allowed to speak.
But, last year when he said similar things guys like Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan and Jamil Wilson would meet with us and say they didn’t mind it because it was always the same message.
If anything, Williams is consistent. Always.
It’s why when I was in Green Bay for Packers practice earlier on the day Thursday afternoon and some colleagues who cover the Packers asked about dealing with Buzz, I said he was a gem, a reporter’s dream.
He’s honest, funny and insightful. He can teach you a lot about basketball if you listen.
But, I also told them he keeps score. Not just with his team, but with the media. I hadn’t seen him since before the season opener on Nov. 8 against Southern. He would know this, I said, and I’m sure he’ll let me know about it before answering my question.
My colleagues were incredulous. It’s not something most coaches do.
I told the same thing to a friend of mine, a Marquette alumnus and a season ticket holder, when he asked how Buzz is to talk to. My message was the same.
I need to be consistent, too.
In fact, prior to tip-off, I joked about the upcoming admonishment with fellow members of the media at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
I looked forward to it, actually. I don’t know, maybe I’m a bit of a masochist.
Anyway, about eight minutes into his press conference, I asked him the following:
You talked about, at the start of the year, the challenge of this core group of guys who know what you wanted and how do you work in these other guys – and you worked on that in the offseason – has that been a little tougher than maybe you thought?
(I know it wasn’t eloquent, but I write for a living!)
Buzz began his answer as I expected him to:
"I think it's hard to become known. Like, you want to become known in your field. I think you take pride in what you do. Every time I see you, your mannerisms are right, your body language is right, you ask a question that has a little bit of thought - like you've read some stuff and studied some stuff and you're semi-prepared in whatever you're going to ask regardless of how the game or the media availability two days before a game – like I appreciate that about ya. And I don't even know who you write for. And I don't know your name."
(Now, to the uninitiated, such a preamble might come across as condescending at best, bullyish at worst. It was neither, at least to me. You have to know Buzz, I guess. In fact, some of my colleagues came up to me after the fact that felt it was a compliment. Oddly, so did I.)
He then answered the question.
"But, this is what I would say: To be known is a monster; to become known in your field. Right? It’s a monster. How do you become known? How do I become known? How does a player become known? Having said that, once you do become known, becoming even known more, known better, is a bear. It’s a bear.
"So, I think we have some guys that we think are known, but yet they haven’t proved that they’re worthy of being known. And we have some guys that are trying to become known, and the examples that they’re following of guys that they think that are known is probably not the right example.
"And so at the end of the day, I have to be the one that’s known. And I don’t mean that egotistically. I have to be the example for all of ‘em. And this is how we’re going to operate. And if you can’t handle ‘this is how we operate,’ then, probably we’ll have to make some adjustments."
Now, this story wasn’t supposed to be about me, either, but he kind of pulled me into it (as expected).
Some background: I know how Buzz is about knowing names and affiliations of those who come around the team, so I made sure to reintroduce myself during Marquette media day. We shook hands and he smiled and he acknowledged me. So either he fibbed then about remembering who I was or he just plain forgot me in the heat of the moment Thursday night, but that’s not important.
It wasn’t really that important that the genesis for my question wasn’t about reading some stuff or making or missing an availability (there wasn’t one I was made aware of on Tuesday, so I assume he meant the availability the Thursday before the Ohio State game, for which I was in Green Bay). But that’s not important, either.
Where my question came from was from his own declaration at the start of the year that taking the five guys that knew his style, his system, and somehow blending that with eight (at the time – Jameel McKay has since left the program) newcomers. He wondered how hard it might be to do that, and that he would work on it.
It came from when I reintroduced myself and my affiliation, and we talked more about that same topic, how it was a point of study for him in the offseason.
"I do that every year," he said then, about finding topics to really dive into during the summers. "I do one basketball thing and then one … maybe you could call it leadership. Just trying to learn something in each aspect. It was a good summer. I think if you’re wanting to know basketball wise, I knew that we were going to have five new guys and eight old guys and only two of them had been real guys before. How are you going to coach those guys?
"I study the first month. I always study the last season. Do all the analytics, break it all the way down. Then we expand on that in the second month. Then we’re done with last year. Then we use what we’ve learned from those studies, OK, what’s the most efficient way to help this year?
"It’s been a long time ... I guess it would’ve been, if you look at it, it would’ve been our first year here because every player on the team was new as it relates to me. I think systematically we’ve evolved each year. But how are we going to teach these two groups? So far I think what we studied and how we approached it and how we wanted to teach it has been good, but we still haven’t played any games."
Now, they’ve played four games.
After that fourth game Thursday night, he talked about how this team hasn’t earned the right to make shots. He talked about them not playing hard. He talked about having bring the "house" he constructs every season down to its foundation to start again. It made sense, at least to me, to approach the topic again.
And, after the brief soliloquy, he answered it, as I knew he would.
It is a bear to become known in college basketball. Right now, none of his players would be in the running for Big East Player of the Year. None would be an All-American. None would be an NBA draft pick. That’s what’s known, now.
In order to win 20 games, to become ranked again, to get to the Sweet 16, or Elite Eight, you need players to develop into someone who people know – both in the media and on the opposing teams.
Williams has wrestled that bear often in his tenure at Marquette. Guys you never would have expected to become known have done just that. He’s proven he can win that duel and history suggests he’ll do it again with this squad. He's consistent. Always.
(As for the bear in the media room, well, that’s just always fun to poke at, especially when you both expect it. It's good to be consistent.)
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.