Destination sweet after road traveled by Marquette leaders

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Marquette's basketball team is fighting stereotypes. Grab hold of something because here they are, one by one, line by line.

The team is mostly composed of junior college talent, which means rent-a-player. At least, so goes the stereotype. Juco is a dirty word to some. Juco, to the uninformed, also means dumb. Couldn't immediately get into a big-boy basketball school, so off to juco they went. (Told you to grab hold of something.) Juco, says the stereotype, means flawed. It means short cut. It means the opposite of blue chip.

Marquette coach Buzz Williams calls it 'really dangerous' to use stereotypes to identify players. (Getty Images)  
Marquette coach Buzz Williams calls it 'really dangerous' to use stereotypes to identify players. (Getty Images)  
As Marquette has upset and advanced and grabbed headlines, the microscopic examination of how the team has advanced deep into the tournament has begun. The focus has been on the juco players. That focus has grown somewhat intense, causing coach Buzz Williams, whose first name matches his haircut, to caution the media this week.

"I think you have to be careful, because you become very stereotypical when you start identifying guys in accordance of where they went to school, where they're from," Williams said. "I think that's really dangerous."

There's that word again: stereotype.

If Butler is Cinderella and Duke is the Kennedys, then Marquette is the Fresh Prince, stepping out of the taxi and into the Sweet 16, the basketball equivalent of Beverly Hills.

Even more interesting is Marquette plays North Carolina on Friday night. The Tar Heels think juco is the sound you make when chewed tobacco hits a spittoon. They don't rely on juco players because, obviously, they don't need to.

Yet maybe Marquette isn't who we thought they were. Maybe, in some ways, this is a nice basketball story, not a degraded one. About how a team took a nontraditional path to a traditional moment in American sports, the Sweet 16. Maybe we shouldn't be stereotyping Marquette as much as we should be tipping our caps to them.

They aren't polished gold but neither was UNLV years ago, or the Fab Five or a few others. The Juco Juggernauts got here. They earned it. Who cares about their background?

Well, we do. The media. Two of the first three questions in the team's press conference were about the junior college players. One of the first three questions during North Carolina's press conference was about the Juco Juggernauts. Five Golden Eagles -- Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Dwight Buycks and Joseph Fulce -- attended junior colleges. Williams himself once coached at Navarro Community College.

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What has happened with Marquette is simple and predictable. The Golden Eagles became close using their junior college experiences as a sort of glue. It's possible no other team left in the Sweet 16 is as tight as this one.

"I think all of us being from juco, it makes us work harder," said Butler. "It was a notch in our belt going to juco, a bump in the road but it got us to the place where we want to be. And I think it runs us all together more. I think that is what's big on this Marquette team. We all have different stories. And all of those stories is something in there that is alike, that's why we are so close and that's why, you know, we all want the same goal and all want to reach the same dreams.

"And I just think that us being from juco, we can talk about those juco days and how hard it was and we didn't have anything like we have now. Marquette is a real nice program. It has really nice facilities and in junior college it was nothing like that. So that's, you know, just being from juco you have those type of stories to share with each other."

Many of their stories (though not all) are indeed similar. They needed the grades to get into better programs, so junior college was a natural choice. They dominated the juco levels and in many instances still went unnoticed. Crowder, for example, a junior forward, was the national player of the year in 2009 for Howard College and led the school to its only national championship. Marquette was still the only big school that came calling.

Butler went to Tyler Junior College and literally faxed his letter of intent from a McDonald's. Fulce explained that his circuitous route to Marquette included a military academy. Buycks played basketball for two years at a community college in Ottumwa, Iowa, which is famous for being the birthplace of a famous M*A*S*H character, not basketball.

And here they are, the Juco Juggernauts, playing North Carolina. There isn't a bigger juxtaposition.

Or maybe more interesting story.

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