LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tom Crean put a hole in the hearts of Marquette fans when he left for Indiana in 2008, leaving them with a 2003 Final Four appearance and questions about whether it could happen again.
Enter one of his assistants, Buzz Williams. He was hardly the image of the fiery Crean on the outside despite a wealth of coaching experience on his resume. Could he coach? And, as important, could he recruit?
The answers have been emphatic in his four seasons, each of which has brought 20-plus victories and an NCAA tournament appearance, including a trip to the Sweet 16 last season.
And as a recruiter? Consider that senior Jae Crowder, the unanimous choice as the Big East player of the year, chose the Golden Eagles after being named junior-college player of the year without ever making a campus visit.
‘‘I built a great relationship with him over the few months we had, going to almost a year,” Crowder said. ‘‘I think the relationship we built was something that I had never had with a coach trying to recruit me.
‘‘I think he separated himself when he told me straight up what to expect from him and what to expect from the program and how he runs things and how things are done at Marquette. I never visited Marquette until I committed there. The relationship between me and him helped me make my decision.”
There is no big-city air to Williams, who attended Oklahoma City University and Texas A&M-Kingsville, where he earned a master’s degree in kinesiology. His coaching career started at his alma maters before he moved to Northwestern (La.) State in 1999. He then spent three seasons as an assistant at Colorado State and two as an assistant at Texas A&M before serving as the head coach at New Orleans in 2006-07. He came to Marquette as an assistant in 2007 and took over when Crean left the next year.
As the third-seeded Golden Eagles prepare to face 14th-seeded BYU in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday, Williams admitted being struck by the ironies the tournament can bring.
‘‘I have the utmost respect for [BYU coach] Dave Rose,” Williams said. ‘‘You talk about his story – junior-college coach, assistant coach, Phi Slama Jama [a member of Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon-led team of 1983] and cancer survivor.
‘‘Then you look at his head-coaching career. He’s won 78 percent of his games, been coach of the year three years in a row in the Mountain West, been to the NCAA tournament every year and coached the player of the year at BYU [Jimmer Fredette last season]. Had that ever happened before?”
Ironic, too, is that BYU’s senior scoring leader Noah Hartsock is someone Williams recruited while he was at Colorado State.
‘‘I think Noah is four years younger than me,” Williams, 39, joked. (Hartsock is 24, having spent time on a Mormon mission to Salt Lake City.) ‘‘His high school coach [in Bartlesville, Okla.] was texting me [Tuesday], ‘Do you remember Noah?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I remember Noah.’ I think he’s the most effective one-two player in Division I.
‘‘I wouldn’t necessarily classify him as an athlete, but if you look at a lot of their games, a lot of times the most athletic guy is trying to guard him to disrupt him because he’s so efficient at what he does.”
Looks can be deceiving for coaches, too.
‘‘His energy is crazy,” Crowder said of Williams. ‘‘As we all know, he’s not afraid to show it at any moment of the game. But he’s like that each and every day.”