March 15, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Jae Crowder hadn't spent much time around snow before.
Safe to say, had he paid a visit to Marquette before he committed, he might be in a very different place this week.
"I hate (winter), still hate it to this day," Crowder, who grew up in Villa Rica, Ga., said Wednesday. "I dislike it, but I deal with it."
And the Golden Eagles are thrilled he does.
The BIG EAST Player of the Year, Crowder has been the catalyst for Marquette's best season since Dwyane Wade took the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. Marquette is 25-7 going into Thursday's second-round game against BYU, and its No. 3 seed matches the school record.
"It's hard to quantify what he's meant to us," coach Buzz Williams said. "We won 22 games last year, and won 25 thus far this year. I don't know that we could have won any of those games without what he brought to our team."
Much like Wade, Crowder was overlooked coming out of high school. Though his father played professional basketball for 14 years - two seasons in the NBA followed by 12 in Europe - Crowder was as interested in football as he was basketball early on. In fact, his father didn't even think Crowder was paying attention when the youngster tagged along to summer pickup games.
But Crowder was watching. Closely, in fact.
"That sparked something in me," he said. "It made me want to play basketball."
With no big schools interested, Crowder went first to South Georgia Tech, a junior college, in the hope he could play his way onto a bigger stage. He led South Georgia Tech to an appearance in the national tournament, and a Division I scholarship seemed certain to follow.
But there was a problem, and it was a big one: South Georgia Tech wasn't accredited, meaning none of the work he did in his year there counted.
If he wanted to play at a Division I school, he'd have to transfer to another junior college and start over, essentially cramming two years of classes into one.
"I told him, 'It's difficult, but it's doable," Corey Crowder said. "In my book, as long as it's doable, no matter how much work you've got to do, you've got to do it to get where you want to go."
Crowder transferred to Howard College, where he led the school to its first national title and was named the junior college player of the year. Now he had the interest of schools everywhere, with coaches making him all kinds of promises.
One, however, would not.
"(Williams) said, 'If you want to play for someone who's on your (butt) every day, come play for me," Crowder said. "If you want someone to be soft on you, go elsewhere."
It was the same kind of message he'd been hearing from his father for years - "If you're willing to put in the time and put in the work, good things will happen for you" - and Crowder was sold.
Never mind that he had never been to Marquette's campus and had no idea just how brutal Midwest winters can be.
"Freezing. FREE-ZING!" Crowder said, laughing. "It just snowed, like, last week."
Because he was still trying to get caught up academically, Crowder couldn't spend the summer in Milwaukee and arrived on campus just as the school year started. He had a decent year, starting about half the games and averaging almost 12 points and seven rebounds as the Golden Eagles made a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
But anyone who watched the Golden Eagles could see he wasn't anywhere close to his potential.
"I think everybody knew he could play," Darius Johnson-Odom said. "(But) he wasn't engaged. He didn't really understand the pace and the play that we played at at Marquette, but he was obviously one of our top players."
Being one of the top players wasn't enough, however. Crowder wanted more - both for himself and for the Golden Eagles.
"Your last year in college, you just want to get further and have a better season than you did collectively the year before," Crowder said. "Individually, I just wanted to have all my numbers on the defensive end and the offensive end go up."
He spent last summer in the gym with his father, working on his offensive game and trying to be more aggressive defensively, and the improvement was noticeable.
Crowder finished in the top 10 in the BIG EAST in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, and was second in the league with 2.4 steals a game. But it was down the stretch that he was at his best.
In the Golden Eagles' wild comeback against Villanova on Jan. 28, Crowder capped the 10-point run that got Marquette back into the game with a 3-pointer as he fell, and finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Three days later, with Wade and LeBron James sitting courtside, Crowder had another double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
And over the last seven games, when Marquette was fighting to lock up one of the top spots in the league, Crowder averaged 23.1 points, 9.4 points and three steals.
"We know he's a great player," BYU's Brandon Davies said. "It's going to take a lot to get him stopped."
Crowder, however, has no intention of slowing down.
Not when he's so close to accomplishing everything he set out to do this year.
"That kid hasn't scratched the surface of his abilities yet," Corey Crowder said. "I don't think we've seen the best of him."
BUZZ'S BUILDING: Marquette coach Buzz Williams remembers his connections at Colorado State every time he heads home. He bought his first house in Fort Collins, where two of his children were born and where then-coach Dale Layer hired him as an assistant.
The Golden Eagles could play the Rams on Saturday if both win their second-round matchup, but regardless of Thursday's outcomes, he has a constant reminder of Colorado State in his Mequon, Wis. garage.
"In our garage, as soon as I pull in the garage, there's a Colorado State Ram as big as that scoreboard," Williams said, pointing to a 20-foot wide one at a KFC Yum! Center practice court. "The entire garage - top, ceiling, side, everything - is the green and gold of Colorado State, because when I drive in every day, no matter what's happened in my life that day, it takes me back to 18 days before I got married (when) I was hired at CSU."
Williams got a chance to hire former Rams coach Dale Layer on his staff as an assistant after Layer was fired, and Layer spent two seasons with Williams before taking the head coaching role at Liberty.
"It reminds me of my growth as a coach and as a husband and a father by the example coach Layer set for me," Williams said of the garage. "It's refreshing and pure to me."