Jenks: NCAA tournament and the lessons of a beloved teacher
Hey, Mercer, nice upsetting victory over Duke, bravo. Alas, you're not the biggest NCAA surprise of the week. Buzz Williams got you beat there.
What the former Marquette coach's departure suggests about the current state of the Big East conference, that's less stunning.
In this modern, big money era, it's certainly not astonishing when a coach without the sir name "Krzyzewski" leaves one school for another. The list of reasons why the raspy-voiced Williams took off from Marquette is a lengthy one.
There's the reported long-running and contentious administrative feud sparked by the school's former Athletic Director. The need for someone new to appreciate him ranks high as well. Conference concerns reportedly played a role.
The peculiar part is the landing spot. Kudos to Virginia Tech for outkicking their coverage with this hire.
Even though Marquette isn't the first or second name that comes to mind in discussions of big time programs, the school spends like one. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, only Duke doles out more money per player per season than Marquette does.
Williams apparently took a sizable pay cut to leave a program with sincere NCAA Tournament hopes each season for one that has two appearances since 1986 and won only 10 ACC games combined over the last three years. Marquette went 17-15 and missed out on the NCAAs this campaign, snapping a stretch of eight straight bids. Williams directed the past five berths and last season's Elite Eight run.
Not only does Virginia Tech lack positive postseason history, the ACC is becoming increasingly challenging with Louisville entering the league next season. Williams will contend with a who's who of coaches including Duke's Coach, Louisville's Rick Pitino, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, and in-state foe Virginia's Tony Bennett. That's a power conference lineup indeed.
Whether the retooled Big East still has the "power conference" status may have also played a factor in the surprising move. From the informative Marquette basketball blog, Paint Touches:
"A source close to the situation told Paint Touches that Williams was growing concerned with the future state of the Big East, that the conference had lost significant luster with the departures of schools such as Syracuse, Louisville and others, relegating it to essentially mid-major prominence."
Four Big East teams reached the NCAA's this season. Entering Saturday, only Villanova and Creighton remain. Few expect the Bluejays to stay among the nation's top programs once All-American Doug McDermott heads to the NBA this summer. Like Marquette, Georgetown's run of NCAA berths ended this year. St. John's advanced to the ultimate March Madness event just once since 2002.
SI.com's report on Williams' departure included the following passage:
"And while the new Big East isn’t a calamity, it’s nowhere near settled, either. There have been no shortage of complaints about the late tipoff times and schedule quirks dictated by the television deal with Fox Sports."
Those familiar with Georgetown's Big East and televised schedule this season understand those concerns.
The Hoyas played two games in three days on five different occasions during a grueling six-week stretch. One scenario had coach John Thompson's squad tipping off in New Jersey against Seton Hall at 9 p.m. and playing at the Verizon Center that Saturday versus Xavier - at 11:30 a.m. Five of Georgetown's final 13 Big East games started at 9 p.m. E.T.
"Our [schedule] has been a little bit different than everyone else's," Thompson said back on February 26, one day before a 9 p.m. ET tipoff at Marquette. "We've had more one day prep games than anyone in the league. So, it's a new league. I think the scheduling aspect, I don't want to use the phrase growing pains, but it will be better.
"I don't think the schedule this year, the way it played out - probably every coach will say this at some point - but I think there's a lot of inequities with how the schedule was put together this year."
The decision to form the basketball-centric Big East came well before all the necessary pieces, including a league commissioner and TV deal were in play. The hope is that with a true off-season plus more vocal say from the schools, next year's schedule is more appealing to those involved.
The Big East kept its coveted name and Madison Square Garden as the site for the conference tournament. Those were significant and positive moves. More must take place to keep the conference ranked among the nation's best.
Buzz Williams clearly had no interest in waiting for their next move.