In early October, Marquette University men’s basketball head coach Buzz Williams addressed the local media and asked why his Golden Eagles were being picked by many to win the reshaped Big East Conference.
He stood at a podium in the Al McGuire Center, incredulous at the thought. Why? Because they shared the conference title last year? Because of previous tournament runs? Because of the names on the roster?
He wondered about all this.
"So the reason we’re picked in the upper echelon is because everybody is mad that the last three years they picked us mid or toward the bottom," he said.
"Everybody’s like OK, we’ll pick them. They don’t know who’s on our team. If you look at our team, who’s on our team? Who’s on our team that’s really had elite level success? You’re going to say Davante (Gardner) because he’s second team all-conference? Who else? Jake Thomas scored one basket in Big East play. Jamil Wilson? He was here for three years before he scored in double figures five consecutive times in a row. The reason we’re being picked is because of what was previously accomplished."
Five days later, at the conference’s national media day in New York, the coaches picked them to win.
The Golden Eagles, which have reached the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament the last three years, received five first place votes (out of 10).
It’s a different conference now, of course. After years of speculation, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals are finally gone. So are Connecticut, South Florida, Rutgers and Cincinnati. Newcomers include Butler, Creighton and Xavier.
What does it all mean? No one will quite know until March.
"For basketball only institutions, we could only participate in a small percentage of the change," Williams said of the realignment across college basketball.
"And considering we could participate in a small percentage of that change, I think we are in the best position we could be in. Only time will tell if that’s accurate. But if you look at the teams that went with us that have been in the league, and the teams that have joined us, from a commitment standpoint, as far as basketball, I think all of those institutions it’s paramount for their men’s basketball program to be successful. I think in the chair that I sit, that’s what you want, initially, that you’re committed to we’re going to do whatever we can to help you be the best you can be. In that regard I think it’s the best.
"With the parity of the league, are we going to beat one another up? And because of the change in the league and the perception is we’re not as good as we were and we don’t get as many teams and the teams we do get in have a lower seed and they don’t win as many games in the tournament, I don’t know. I don’t know. I think, like every coach, the best that you can do is win."
Marquette plans to win this season with a relatively new-look lineup as well. Gone is the veteran backcourt of Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan, but Williams will be able to depend on an experienced frontcourt of seniors that include Gardner, a preseason All-Big East first team pick, Wilson and Chris Otule.
Wilson saw his role grow as the season wore on last year, but this season he is needed even more so.
"Buzz told me I’d have to play the one through the five on both sides of the floor, literally," Wilson said. "You never know what it is, you never know if it’ll be the same. I like to be over prepared and just kind of go with the flow, regardless of what it is. If he wants to play me somewhere or has an idea of putting me somewhere, I need to know things like that. I just like to know the game as a whole overall, so just in case something comes up, someone gets in foul trouble, or he needs me to guard someone, I like to know things like that. I’m glad he trusts me like that and hopefully I can build on that a little more this year."
Junior Derrick Wilson will assume the point guard mantle from Cadougan, which for Williams are no small shoes to fill, despite the limitations many saw in Cadougan during his tenure at Marquette.
"I can be better than I’ve ever been before, as far as offensively and defensively," he said. "I think all of us have to be better than we’ve been before because getting to the Sweet 16, Sweet 16, then Elite Eight, then people are after you more now. I think we all have to be better. I think I have to step up. I have to be able to score the ball a little bit more than I did before and those are some big things I have to do."
Freshman JuJuan Johnson should also be a factor immediately, as the spindly, 6-foot, 5-inch guard was complimented up and down by teammates and Williams.
"Really, I just want to win," Johnson said.. "I don’t have much expectations because I don’t know what I’m getting myself into right now. I’m just going along and playing it by ear. We’ve got a lot of older guys, so I’m just listening to them."
Unfortunately for Williams and the Golden Eagles, they will start the year somewhat shorthanded. Freshman guard Duane Wilson will miss the beginning of the season with a stress fracture in his left leg while sophomore Steve Taylor is coming off a knee surgery (as is Mayo). Then, junior college transfer Jameel McKay suddenly left the program.
Despite those legitimate roster issues and legitimate questions as to whether the juniors and underclassmen can perform at a high level, the Golden Eagles do enter the 2013-14 season in a position they’re not often put in – favorites.
"As your success maybe creates more success, what was originally your goals have to change," Williams conceded. "And as your goals continue to change, and it almost puts you in prison. Because what you thought – here’s my goals – well we did that, and it keeps shrinking. And as it keeps shrinking you’re like, what are we going to do now? Everybody thinks this is what we’re supposed to do, and we have to do better. I don’t know that I can answer that for our kids. I can better answer that for me. For me, I think the deal is it can’t become a prison because every team is unique, and within that team you have to coach that team. And you have to forget about the ring that you just won, but you can’t forget the formula that got you that ring.
"You realize they’re expecting us to do that but do better. So you can’t forget the formula but you have to forget the ring, but you can’t become soft because everybody begins to attack you even more."
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.