Pitt, Marquette take different paths to consistency
January 7, 2011 5:00 AM
Mel Evans/Associated Press
Darius Johnson-Odom is Marquette's leading scorer with 15.6 points per game this season.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even the most prominent teams in the Big East have a bad season sometimes. Connecticut, Syracuse, Georgetown and Louisville, schools with NCAA championships on their resumes, have missed the NCAA tournament within the past five seasons.
Connecticut missed qualifying for the tournament twice in the past four years. Syracuse failed to qualify in consecutive seasons in 2006-07 and '07-'08. Georgetown missed in '08-'09 and Louisville in '05-'06.
The two most consistent teams will meet Saturday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt and Marquette are the only Big East Conference teams to win 10 or more conference games in each of the past five seasons.
What's impressive about Marquette's streak is that it has been done with two coaches. Tom Crean left for Indiana after the 2007-'08 season, and his assistant, Buzz Williams, has not allowed the program to take a step back.
"I've been able to reap some of the hard work from coach Crean," Williams said. "It says a lot about the head coach, the staff and the players.
"But, just as important, to get to the point, I think it says a lot about the institution and its belief that men's basketball is successful because you can't always blame coaches or players. You have to have a commitment from the inside in order to build something that has that sustainability. There are a lot of institutions that want to have good teams. There are very few that want to have good programs."
It's not unusual for the premier programs in the country to go through transition periods or rebuilding years. In fact, it's the norm.
Look south to the ACC. North Carolina failed to make the NCAA tournament last season after winning the national championship the previous season. Or look west to UCLA, which has endured its share of problems in recent seasons after making three consecutive Final Fours.
Some of it has to do with the cyclical nature of recruiting and players leaving early for the NBA. Other times, things just do not go as planned.
Pitt and Marquette were expected to go through rebuilding last season, but both exceeded preseason expectations. Pitt was picked to finish ninth in a preseason poll of the league coaches, and the Panthers were 13-5 and finished in a tie for second place. Marquette was picked to finish 11th, and the Golden Eagles were 11-7 and tied for fifth.
"I thought Buzz did an unbelievable job last year," Dixon said. "He did a great job with the guys they had returning. They've found ways. They've surprised some people with how they've finished because they've had personnel losses.
Dixon and Williams have gone about constructing their teams in different ways. Williams brings in players from junior colleges to fill out his roster with a mix of top-rated recruits from high schools. Dixon recruits almost exclusively from high schools and develops players over a number of years.
Marquette's top three scorers, Darius Johnson-Odom, Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder, all spent at least one season at a junior college before transferring to Marquette. Williams believes the ideal way to maintain a high level of success is recruiting and developing high school players. Having spent the early part of his coaching career in the junior-college ranks, he is partial to such players and some of the intangibles they bring to a team.
"I like those guys who have never been on a charter bus much less a charter plane," Williams said. "I like those guys who never stayed in a hotel that, when you open the door, it goes into the hall, not to the outside. Never stayed at a hotel that has a pool much less a weight room. I like the fact that they've had pregame and postgame meals from the same fast-food joint. I think they have an edge to prove something, and I identify with that edge because of my heritage in the business."
Regardless of their philosophical differences toward building and maintaining their programs, Dixon and Williams don't appear to be headed toward any rebuilding seasons anytime soon. Both have strong recruiting classes on the way, and both bring 2-0 records into the game Saturday.
"They've been very good for the last five years," Dixon said. "They've been very consistent and very deep and talented at the same time. They've had some changeover in the staff, but they've found pieces. They've had guys transfer, but they've been able to replenish their talent base. I know Buzz is a junior-college guy. I'm a junior-college guy, so I appreciate that. Coming from out West, junior colleges were more prevalent and stocked with players back in the day.
"I think there are still guys out there, and Buzz has proven that by coming up with some guys. They're going back to their roots and where they've recruited for years."