Buzz Williams isn’t one to shy away from the subject of failure. On the contrary, he prefers to make the most of it.
The Marquette basketball coach has often noted his belief that you learn more from your failures than your successes. “I don’t think most people believe that,” Williams says, “but I believe that.”
So in that sense, Marquette has had more learning opportunities recently than its fans are accustomed to. There have been 10 losses this season. That’s more than the team experienced in each of the last two seasons, and the 14-10 record has turned the Golden Eagles into underdogs to make the NCAA tournament.
And even though you could classify nine of Marquette’s losses as quality ones - as tweeted by Mike Broeker, Marquette’s deputy athletic director - that’s not holding much weight with the bracketologists. None of them are predicting an NCAA tournament run for the Golden Eagles, leading to the prevailing opinion that Marquette’s only paths to the dance are by either winning out or winning the Big East tournament.
Against that backdrop, you will note that Marquette is playing better of late. Tuesday's win at Seton Hall meant consecutive conference victories for the first time this season. And, Williams will tell you, there remains time to get better still. Which, you figure, is where the learning part kicks in.
After last week’s win against Butler, Williams took stock of Marquette’s path to this point. He spoke of early-season tweaks in the face of a difficult nonconference schedule. “And we didn’t lay as good of a foundation as we needed because we were trying to mask our liabilities so early in the season,” he said. “Four of our first six league games are on the road, and we’re trying to build our foundation while being on the road. Four seniors, four freshmen, all of that. There’s a multitude of things.”
He did not mention the unexpected preseason departures of Vander Blue and Jameel McKay, either of whom would’ve strengthened that foundation. But he did mention what’s come from the multitude of things.
“I’ve taken a lot of notes, and I’ve learned a lot, and I think we have a lot of season left,” he continued. “And as I told our team, I think every game, wherever we play, if we’re gonna have a chance to win, it’s gonna end up being a grind. It’s just gonna be a grind.”
Go back to before Marquette’s roller-coaster ride of a season began, and you might remember the time Williams talked about prison.
Not in the literal sense, mind you, just in one of his patented metaphorical soliloquies. It was October, Marquette’s Media Day, and he got started on the subject of the program’s recent success, the details of which most Golden Eagles fans could probably recite by heart. Eight straight NCAA tournament appearances, the last five with Williams as head coach. Three straight Sweet 16 runs, capped by last year’s Elite Eight effort, which included the school’s first and only regular-season Big East title.
And therein, Williams explained, is the trap. Because the more success you have, the more success you’re expected to have. And as your goals are revised to meet that next level, your target keeps shrinking, which makes it harder to hit. And if you don’t hit it, then in the eyes of many, you’ve gone from success to failure.
“And it almost puts you in prison,” Williams said in October. “For me, I think the deal is, it can’t become a prison, because every team is unique. And within that team, you have to coach that team.”
It is only natural to measure the current Marquette squad against Williams’ previous ones. The more interesting measure may be comparing the current Marquette squad to itself. We’ll have to wait until March to read that tape.
But after the Butler win, Williams explained his big-picture measure of things. "What is success? Everybody has a different definition of it, and I try to teach our kids this, and I'm working on teaching my oldest boy this."
(Speaking of kids, if you somehow missed Gregg Doyel's feature on Buzz's Bunch, be sure to rectify that.)
Williams stuck his hands out. "Here's success, whatever you call it," he said. "The best ones in that definition of success are the ones that are able to do it over a long period of time."
The concept, he said, extended beyond coaches and players, beyond mere sports and into other endeavors.
"It's that long stretch. That's what the separator is. Guys can do stuff for two or three years," he continued. "That's why I like all those old people. Eddie Sutton and George Raveling and Bill Frieder, all of those guys. Those guys did it for a loooong time. A looooooonnnnnggggg time."
Seasons are short.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I tweet as howiemag. And listen to me talk sports with Mitch Teich once a month on WUWM's "Lake Effect."