By Doug Russell Special to Published Feb 22, 2012 at 11:00 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

They're too injured. They are too undersized. They are too reliant on the three-point shot.

All repeated criticisms of the Marquette basketball program, currently the No. 10 ranked college basketball team in both major polls.

Constantly underrated and lacking blue-chip star power, what Buzz Williams has built at Marquette has been nothing short of remarkable. That the Golden Eagles have been steadily rising as one of the top programs in the nation despite losing such stars as Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, Lazar Hayward, and Jimmy Butler to graduation is mind-boggling.

First of all, Williams is not nearly as country-bumpkin stupid as he wants you to believe. I wouldn't go as far as to say it is an act. But it isn't that far away from one. In terms of his basketball instinct, attention to detail, and routine, Williams is borderline obsessive.

In terms of basketball knowledge, Williams is borderline genius.

But because of his upbringing in Texas, Williams has a southern drawl that some mistake for a lack of intelligence. When Williams glowingly talks about opposing coaches he has faced and beaten, like Bo Ryan, Jim Boeheim, or Jim Calhoun, he downplays his own accomplishments.

Please, make no mistake about what the fourth-year coach brings to the table. At one point during last season, Williams was asked to describe his team's play in one word. The word he used? "Pugnacity."

That word also describes how Williams has coached since he was elevated to the top spot when Tom Crean left for Indiana in 2008.

Marquette may not be the biggest or fastest team in college basketball; they may not have very much flash in their game, and they have not had a top-tier singular player since Dwayne Wade left for the NBA nearly a decade ago.

But there also might not be a harder working team in the nation than the Golden Eagles.

And while they may get beaten from time to time, rarely will they get outworked. Part of the challenge of being a Marquette basketball player nowadays is surviving Williams' famous "boot camp" before the start of the season. Until you complete your training, you aren't allowed to wear the team's official practice gear. It is a badge of honor to be included in those that survive.

It is equally shameful to be left out.

This is the mentality that has permeated Marquette this season. Overcoming injuries to big men Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, the Golden Eagles have seen senior leaders Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder put everyone else on their back. Both players are in consideration for Big East Player of the Year, having led Marquette to wins over No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 21 Louisville.

In addition, Marquette has been able to hang with the top teams in the country, suffering narrow road losses at No. 9 Georgetown and No. 1 Syracuse in back-to-back games.

Since that Jan. 7 loss at the Carrier Dome, Golden Eagles only hiccup was a 76-59 whipping at Notre Dame Feb. 4. Perhaps that served as the wake-up call that they needed, with MU having ripped off four straight wins since, including last Saturday's 79-64 convincing win over the defending NCAA Champion Connecticut Huskies.

In that game, despite not having a healthy player over 6-7, Marquette still outrebounded U-Conn 33-30. Never mind that the Huskies feature one of the top centers in the country in 6-10 Andre Drummond. Crowder got Drummond into foul trouble and dominated him when they were matched up together.

For the player many expect to be the No. 2 overall selection in this year's NBA Draft, Drummond was held to just seven points and four rebounds. Meanwhile, Crowder turned in one of the greatest individual performances in school history, registering 29 points and 12 rebounds in Marquette's victory.

"It's a jubilant locker room," Williams told reporters after Saturday's win. "I'm extremely pleased with our hearts and our instincts and the intellect of our team."

"(Crowder) is the heart and soul of our team," Johnson-Odom added. Johnson-Odom had 16 of his 24 points in the first half. "He does a lot of things for us— rebounding, defending, getting steals, whatever he does, it helps us a lot."

As it stands right now, the Golden Eagles are tied with Notre Dame for second place in the 16-team Big East. If they finish in the top four, they will earn the coveted double-bye in the upcoming conference tournament in New York. Not that they would necessarily need it, but it would cut the number of possible games at Madison Square Garden from five to three.

"Winning five games in a row is tough," Crowder said this week. "UConn did it last year, so it's possible. But with that double bye, you have a greater chance, so that's what we're striving for."

With games against Rutgers (Wednesday night at home), road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati, plus Senior Day vs. Georgetown, MU looks to be in decent shape for that double-bye.

Meanwhile, Crowder is building his NBA resume with every game as well. Despite his size, the Marquette senior is 14th in the nation in steals. He is a solid shooter from the outside, but plays a physical underneath game the pros demands.

Plus, what was before as a detriment is seen as an advantage in NBA circles. Outside of Wade and Doc Rivers before him, Marquette is not known for churning out All-Stars at the professional level. But that's okay. Because the last few years have seen a more workmanlike player emerge from 16th and Wisconsin.

Now that scouts have seen Williams players like Matthews, Hayward, and Butler excel at the next level, the league knows what they are getting with a Marquette player. Because Williams' practices are notoriously hard, NBA coaches know that they have players that are used to doing whatever is necessary to gain whatever edge they can.

Which brings me back to the coach.

When Buzz Williams was hired, many, myself included, screamed for anyone to hear that this was a lazy hire from an athletic director who did not want to conduct a national search. For better or worse in terms of how he treated people and the manner in which he left, Crean elevated the expectations of Marquette basketball. And while some (myself included) were screaming for a bigger name like Keno Davis or Sean Miller, Marquette knew they had a tenacious recruiter, a tremendous motivator, and a tireless worker in Williams.

I am always happy to say when I was wrong about something. I was wrong about Marquette's decision to hire Buzz Williams. And I am glad I was wrong.

He may not have been well known around the country, but Williams was well respected among his peers. And while his story, famously told at a NCAA Tournament postgame briefing, seems too Americana to believe, it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that his players believe it.

And it matters that they believe in Buzz because of the hell he puts them through during boot camp and in their grueling practices. They know that they might not have the size or reputation as other programs, but they will not be out-hustled. They will not be outworked. They will not be intimidated by the name on the front of the jersey or the back of it, either.

Often times we bemoan the state of basketball in Milwaukee with the Bucks continuing struggles. But if you haven't hopped on the Marquette bandwagon yet, come tournament time, there might not be much room left.

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.