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In Sports

Marquette junior Jamil Wilson is emerging as a star for the Golden Eagles. (Photo: David Bernacchi)

In Sports

Jamil Wilson helped Horlick High School to a state titlel game his senior year. (Photo courtesy: Jason Treutelaar)

Jamil Wilson's emergence key for Marquette in NCAA Tournament

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."

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