The best football at Marquette, a school that has not fielded a team in more than a half century, is played in the summer, when 6-6 Jae Crowder shadows 6-7 Jamil Wilson on passing routes in unrelenting seven-on-seven games. Players compare the rigors of the competition to an NFL scouting combine.
From Kentucky’s shot-blocking ability to Wisconsin’s deliberate pace, each NCAA tournament Sweet 16 team has a specific calling card. And for Marquette, the No. 3 seed in the West Region, it is an acquired skill set — power, speed, toughness — that translates onto another playing surface.
“We have a football mentality,” said guard Todd Mayo, the younger brother of NBA player O.J. Mayo. “That’s just how we are bred. That’s what Buzz teaches; he wants a physical team.”
A basketball program that earned notoriety from one eccentric coach, Al McGuire, is now led by another sideline ball of fire in Buzz Williams, a 39-year-old who took a non-traditional route up the coaching ladder after being raised on football while growing up north of Dallas.
Some of Williams’s best friends are football coaches. He often talks with Jon Gruden and Herman Edwards, among others. And he makes regular visits to spring practices and training camps across the country.
“I like football,” Williams said. “It has just kind of been part of my makeup as I progressed.”
It is a makeup now rooted in his Marquette basketball players, who Murray State Coach Steve Prohm said look like a parade of linebackers or defensive backs without shoulder pads and helmets. After watching Marquette before a second-round NCAA tournament matchup, Prohm joked to his team that the Golden Eagles look like they all should be in spring practice at Alabama or Louisiana State.
“Those guys, those bodies are awesome,” Prohm said. “They are some physical, physical guys. They look like they should be top-10 draft picks in football.”
After Marquette muscled its way past sixth-seeded Murray State, 62-53, the Golden Eagles sat in a locker room — some wearing ice packs, others wearing knee pads — as if halfway through a two-a-day football session in August training camp. And Todd Smith, the man most responsible for instilling gridiron attributes, stood with arms folded and his back to the wall.
“What is unique about all these guys is that they keep coming back every day for the same torture we put them through,” said Smith, Marquette’s strength and conditioning coach, whose offseason program includes “anything and everything.”
Players pull 250-pound sleds. They climb rope until fingers blister. They slip their fists into boxing gloves and pound a body bag. And they use a real football and play a variety of football-related games, rotating quarterbacks in the two-hand touch matchups to keep things fair.
There is no distance running. The emphasis: activities that build fast-twitch muscle fibers and durability. Sometimes video is used to correct running forms.
At first, Smith said, players want to quit. Some throw up. But the team’s weight room is not nicknamed “The Confidence Room” for nothing. Perhaps no Marquette player has made bigger strides in conditioning and confidence than junior point guard Junior Cadougan, who ruptured his Achilles’ tendon as a freshman.
“It is just a crazy, radical situation,” Cadougan said. “It’s torture, but it’s from the heart, it’s love. He is not doing it to torture our bodies, but to prepare us for situations like this” in the NCAA tournament.
A big reason Williams already has had conversations with several NFL teams about Crowder potentially trying out is because of the skills the sculpted 235-pound senior honed in Smith’s offseason program. “He just kills you,” said Crowder, the Big East player of the year.
After players survive the summer program, they prepare for two more phases before traditional basketball practice begins in mid-October. There’s individual work with Williams, and there’s the early October “Boot Camp,” 12 sessions that include various forms of two activities: running fast and running faster.
Players said the offseason work has steeled them mentally and physically for the NCAA tournament. Wilson said he saw Murray State’s big men fatigue in the final minutes of the round-of-32 game.
Following a victory over rugged Florida State on Sunday, Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates called the Seminoles physical, but certainly no more so than some Big East teams, namely Marquette. What the Golden Eagles lack in Florida State-like size, they make up for in strength and power.
“We’re small,” Wilson said. “But we take a lot of pride in being physical and stronger than everybody.”
Brigham Young Coach Dave Rose knew Marquette was an aggressive offensive rebounding team, much like the Iona team that BYU rallied to beat in the NCAA tournament’s opening-round game in Dayton. But Rose said the Golden Eagles were “a lot more physical.”
Over the past week, tournament teams fielded a variety of questions in advance of their games. But only Marquette’s players were asked which football team they’d want to play for.
Said Darius Johnson-Odom: “I am going to play for the LSU Tigers.”