MILWAUKEE -- It was regarded as the ultimate compliment paid by coaches, media and even the fans. Marquette's Buzz Williams got his team to play hard. Really, really hard.
However, now it's almost become a sign of disrespect.
"I'm tired of it," Williams said.
"It's frustrating," Golden Eagles big man Davante Gardner added. "It's all we hear. They don't look at the other things -- that we're smart, play together and do all the little things. It's always just that we play hard."
The truth, though, is that this program is built on toughness, effort and skill development. When Lazar Hayward arrived, he did so as a reach for then-coach Tom Crean. When Jimmy Butler got here, he did so as an anonymous junior college kid. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder , both ex-Juco kids, followed and were unheralded when they arrive in Milwaukee. All improved enough to hear their names called in the NBA Draft.
There's no future NBA guys on this year's roster, but that doesn't mean these guys haven't developed. Look at 6-foot-8, 285-pound Gardner, who ultimate chose Marquette over Norfolk State. He was the most dominant player on the floor on Monday night in a 74-71 win over Syracuse. How about Chris Otule, the team's starting big man who also happens to be blind in one eye. Junior Cadougan has turned into one of the most underrated point guards in America due to his ability to lead and make those around him better. Vander Blue has become the team's leading scorer and turned into a respectable shooter after filling a role in his first two seasons.
These guys certainly don't look the part of a team that sits all alone in second place in the Big East standings on Feb. 26, but that's exactly what they are.
"We know they are much more talented," Gardner said of Syracuse.
Marquette won its 20th game Monday night against a Syracuse team that could have everyone up and down its roster earning a paycheck for playing this game in a few years. Michael Carter-Williams wasn't the dominant player on the floor. Neither was senior Brandon Triche or any of the Orange's long and athletic bigs. Take your pick: Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant, even C.J. Fair.
The night belonged to Gardner and his Golden Eagles. He may as well be the poster child for Buzz's Bunch. He looks like he belongs on an offensive line, or maybe in a beer league, but he has turned himself into a player. Sure, he was tougher than those good-looking, live athlete on the Cuse frontline. But he utilized his mind, body and skill set to the tune of 26 points and eight boards. Gardner made all seven of his field goals and was 12 of 13 from the line.
Williams was the unlikely choice to take over the reigns when Crean left for Indiana in 2008, an assistant who had been on staff for just one season. The tobacco-chewing Texan has now won at least 20 games each season while playing in arguably the most strenuous league in America over than span. He's 116-52, which is nearly a 70 percent winning percentage, and is 57-30 in league play.
Williams doesn't deny that playing hard is a significant factor in the program's success in his tenure.
"If we don't play hard, we don't have a chance," he admitted. "But I don't think you can be as consistent as we have and people justify it as just playing hard. It has to be deeper than that."
You don't win games purely on effort, but it's a foundation, a cornerstone of this program under their hard-working coach. Marquette entered the game ranked 22nd in the nation in both polls, coming off a road setback against Villanova. A loss against Syracuse would have removed the Golden Eagles from the equation for the Big East regular-season title. Now, with three games left, this group still has a chance.
"I never would have believed you if you'd have told me that," Gardner admitted of winning a league title.
It's a program that's continued to overachieve in Williams' tenure. Maybe it's that we've never heard of these guys when they commit, or maybe because they don't pass the "look test." These guys lost the Big East Player of the Year in Crowder and also graduated leading scorer Johnson-Odom. That's more than 35 points per game gone, and a valid reason why the program was picked seventh in the Big East preseason poll this season. No one gave them a shot to compete for the conference title, but here they are just a half game behind Georgetown.
You can't deny Marquette plays hard.
Its coach should embrace it -- and the country should embrace that Williams can do more than just teach toughness and effort.