By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Mar 21, 2013 at 11:11 AM

In the oft-told, unlikely odyssey of Buzz Williams’ career leading up to, and now in Milwaukee, he has long been in search of his "high major players." It’s a hunt in which sometimes he is successful, sometimes he is not.

He succeeded when he lured Jimmy Butler out of Tromball, Texas. He succeeded when he brought in Jae Crowder out of Howard College in Big Spring, Texas. Both players stood 6-feet, 7-inches, and by the time they played their final seasons at Marquette, the weight of the program was on their shoulders.

They were developed into NBA players under Williams, the coarse Texan sanding down the rough edges and polishing the pair into stars.

In 2009, however, he had failed when Jamil Wilson took off from Horlick High School in Racine to the University of Oregon.

Sometimes the hunter goes hungry.

Nowhere to hide

Jamil Wilson was more than just another face, another basketball player, in a city of near 80,000. He was James’ son, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Hall of Famer who won a national championship in 1984. And this was Racine, the town that produced Jim Chones, Jim McIlvaine, Alex Scales and Caron Butler.

People knew Jamil, even if he didn’t know them. They were watching, too. His dad knew where he was, who he was with and what he was doing – even if he just went a few miles an hour too quickly down a sidestreet.

"I have eyes on you," his father told him.

Basketball is blood there, and Wilson was the next big thing from the time he took the court at the Martin Luther King Center as a toddler. Being a 6-6 by his freshman year didn’t hurt either.

"When you come from Racine where basketball is king, there’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders," Horlick High School head coach Jason Treutelaar said. "There’s no hiding around here."

Jake Thomas knows that better than most.

Wilson’s current teammate is the same age, but attended St. Catherine's High School. He first met Wilson on the court in grade school and couldn’t help but notice the kid dunking when everyone else only dreamt it. Thomas was a highly recruited player in his own right – he went to South Dakota on scholarship before transferring to Marquette

"It seems really small when it comes to basketball," Thomas said their hometown. "There are a lot of kids who play basketball, but there are only a few places that people really go to play, so you just get to know everybody through basketball."

The initial plan Treutelaar mapped out with James and Carolyn Wilson was to try and release some of that pressure off their son. Wilson would start on junior varsity and go from there - until the first day of practice when a member of the varsity went down with an injury.

Horlick was left without any size, and the plan changed. It didn’t take long for Wilson’s national profile to surpass even the expectations found in his hometown. Wisconsin. Michigan State. Marquette. Oregon. Texas. The spotlight only intensified.

As this was happening Carolyn was fighting cancer, which proved to be too strong an opponent in March 2007. Wilson was growing up quickly as it was, but such a personal devastation only accelerated his maturation. He had to balance school, grief, recruitment, and the pressure of being the best player to come out of Racine in nearly a decade.

"She was a very calming lady and she understood the game very well and she could really relate to Jamil and kind of just soothe him a little bit," Treutelaar said. "When he lost that – his dad was a very competitive basketball player and was a great figure for Jamil – but I don’t know if he had that calming effect at times that the mother had. That was a little bit more difficult for Jamil to deal with."

Perhaps it’s why Williams lost out on Wilson when it was time for him to make his college commitment. He chose March 8, 2009, his mother’s birthday, as the date he picked Oregon. There was some connection to the Ducks – Scales had played there for two years – and Wilson had developed a strong relationship with head coach Ernie Kent.

Sitting on a sofa in the Marquette basketball offices, Wilson rubbed his chin, his hands wrapping his face as tightly as the beard poking through his fingers.

"At times I didn’t know how to handle it, especially with everything that happened with my mom," he admitted. "I was trying to balance it, find a happy medium.

"It’s not your typical 16-year-old life. It was kind of hard to juggle but it’s manageable as long as you surround yourself with good people and stay humble, which family tends to do that."

As a true freshman in 2009-10, Wilson started 14 times and appeared in 26 games, but the Ducks went 16-16 overall and Kent was fired. Suddenly, the Oregon program was in flux.

"Getting away and dealing with a lot of the pressures that come with being as talented as he was, it looked to be very good for him," Treutelaar said of Wilson’s Oregon commitment. "He just wanted to spread his wings a little bit and after a year or so, you realize that coming home might be a good thing."


Williams wasn’t about to miss again.

With uncertainty surrounding the Ducks program, Wilson was looking to come home, and this time the Marquette coach closed the deal. Yet Wilson’s arrival in Milwaukee during the summer of 2010 was a bit different than if he had come to campus just a year earlier.

He was no longer one of the nation’s top recruits from just down 94, and he was going to have sit out the year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. From the bench, he watched as Butler led the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16. Going into the next year, Wilson’s first in uniform, all eyes were on Crowder, Darius Johnson-Odom and a hot shot guard out of Madison named Vander Blue.

The pressure was off.

"Having these couple years here, a little separation, has kind of allowed this progression to happen the way it has without people saying ‘How come you’re not doing this’ or ‘How come you’re not doing that,'" Treutelaar said. "Where as if he maybe would’ve just stepped right into Marquette from the get go it may have been a little bit different with the expectations and such."

Wilson welcomed the time away, as it afforded him the opportunity to just watch and learn the game from the outside. While he accepted his reserve role and deferred to the more experienced players on the roster, Williams was there, sanding away the edges, watching Wilson grow physically and mentally.

This year, his redshirt junior season, Wilson is emerging as the third 6-7 star under Williams’ belt.

"He’s as good as we’ve had here," Williams said simply.

Wilson has seen his game blossom the last 11 games. He has reached double figures in scoring 10 times in averaging a team-high 12 points per game. He is also shooting 46 percent from the field in that stretch. For the season, Wilson is fourth on the team in minutes played, third in scoring, tied for second in rebounding and second in blocks and 3-pointers made.

"When he’s in the right emotional frame of mind, or spirit, or whatever you want to call it, he’s really good," Williams said. "He’s smarter than anybody in our program, including coaches. Off the chart."

Williams then rattled off all of defensive positions and assignments he asks Wilson to memorize, and execute, from zone coverages to special situations.

"Jimmy Butler had some shades of that, which is why I think he was drafted, (but) Jamil has a better skill set," Williams concluded. "His intellect is as good as anybody as I’ve coached in 19 years."

It’s high praise from the head coach, but it shows the level of respect and trust he has in Wilson – and it also shows how he may be the key to a deep Golden Eagles run in the NCAA Tournament.

Wilson can defend anywhere on the floor, and create mismatches at the offensive end that free up his teammates. When Williams decides to go big with Davante Gardner and Chris Otule together down low, it forces smaller players out on Wilson. Or, when a quicker lineup is brought in with Juan Anderson and Steve Taylor, Wilson becomes the man down low that bigs have a hard time staying in front of.

"That’s why he’s going to be great and that’s why I can coach him the way I coach him, because I trust him so much," Williams said.

It’s something that has been a part of Wilson’s makeup since his days in Racine. He played all five positions at Horlick and oftentimes Treutelaar would look to him for his opinions on matchups and strategy – not because he was the star – but because he knew the game so well.

"It’s a great amount of responsibility," Wilson said of the trust Williams puts in him. "It’s hard to remember everything but the fact he puts that much weight on me, I respect that of him and I actually accept the challenge. It’s showing how much he believes in me and if he believes in me that much I should believe in myself even more than he does because my dad always told me that my expectations should be higher than anyone else’s. So if he expects that of me, then I should give him more."

Wilson has been asked by his coaches to play these varied roles because not only can he physically do it, but also because the other players need him to.

"I think he’s like the Jae Crowder, the Jimmy Butler – they used to do everything for us so I think he’s one of those guys," Gardner said. "A leader. We talk. He’s always helping me out whenever I need to keep going, keep fighting, get through the times. He’s a really big part. He’s one of the people that talk and we need that on the team."

The next step

Wilson likes that responsibility, likes the study, the work that goes into learning not only his roles – varied as they may be – but his teammate’s and his opponent’s. It why Williams constantly heaps so much on him, but it may also be why it’s taken him longer to accept the fact that he is so good.

In order for the Golden Eagles to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2003 Final Four run is for Wilson to finally realize what his coach and his teammates see in him.

"Jamil’s probably the best player on this team to me," said guard Vander Blue, the Golden Eagles leading scorer. "He’s very athletic, can do everything, great size. Very intelligent. He knows all the plays, knows everybody’s position, he’s always in the gym.

"He’s the best player on our team and we need him to play like that to try to get far in March. With him being another threat like that we’re really hard to guard and really tough to beat."

Williams is seeing that star emerge now.

The coach knows it can take time – he’s seen it happen first hand with Butler and Crowder – and now Wilson is on the doorstep of emerging perhaps the brightest of his Three Kings.

"I think where Jamil has begun to flourish is he has accepted that our team needs him to be productive," Williams said. "Sometimes that’s one of the latter steps of realizing you are an elite player. You are tentative. Everybody’s told you you’re good. You want to be good. And then when you get on the threshold of you better be good, that kind of changes your lens a little bit. I think his lens has changed over the last three, four weeks.

"I just think it’s one of the last steps from when you go from being good to great, when you realize everybody – the opponent, my team, my coaches, the people watching, they know I’m supposed to be good and I’ve got to produce. Sometimes that’s harder to swallow than most people think."

It may seem like a long process, but it’s a comfortable one for Wilson because he’s gone through it before. During his sophomore season at Horlick, Treutelaar sat him down in his office for a heart-to-heart, and the realization of potential. A challenge was issued – if the Rebels were going to be great, going to win a state championship – Wilson had to be, too. Every night.

"I feel like it’s the exact same place, the exact same thing I went through in high school," Wilson said. "From my first year playing behind Jae and DJ and then this year, not having really like a key guy but just being a good core group, solid group, just having those games that I have to play great on the defensive end and on the offensive end I have to key in on everything, I have to have an all-around game."

He is getting there, and only proves how scary the Big East champions can be in this NCAA Tournament. The Golden Eagles open up tournament play Thursday against Davidson in Lexington, Ky. They survived the gauntlet of one of the toughest schedules in the country, yet as a group has spent the better part of the year overlooked and undervalued. Perhaps Wilson's formation into Williams' latest star will shine a light on a path the program hasn't traveled in a decade.

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

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.