"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NCAA Q & A with Warrior great Jim McIlvaine

We're pleased once again to welcome Marquette legend Jim McIlvaine back to the blog for his take on the 11th seeded Warriors they move into the Sweet 16 against the 2nd seeded North Carolina Tar Heels. As a senior at Marquette, Jim led the Warriors to the Sweet 16 -- while dealing with chatter about the coaching carousel. Sound familiar? With these perspectives in mind, who better to help set the stage for this weekend's action.

As a reminder you can stay in touch with Jim on his own blog over at ESPN Milwaukee. And be sure to listen to Jim and Steve "The Homer" True as they call the action on Friday night.

Marquette is 4-1 since Buzz Williams held a lengthy, closed-door team meeting after the Seton Hall defeat. What has been different about this team since that point, if anything?

I think the thing stuck out to both Homer and I in the games after that meeting was the shot selection we saw from the team. Buzz Williams'-coached teams have always seemed to be very conscientious about their shot selection and routinely passed up good shots in search of great shots. While I would far prefer that to a team with no conscience, I think Marquette has been more willing to take some of those good shots earlier in the offense, than we saw earlier in the season. I don't know what was said specifically in that meeting, but I also think talks like that can help re-focus a team. Sometimes things can build up over the course of a season and having an opportunity to just air some concerns or thoughts can help restore confidence and put guys in a better frame of mind.

Chris Otule and Junior Cadougan have shown remarkable improvement within the season, surprising many. To what do you attribute their more consistent contributions?

I think time within the program always helps players. That includes time learning the system, getting comfortable with teammates & coaching styles. Even improvements in strength & conditioning can help a player's confidence tremendously and when I look at the way both Junior & Chris' bodies looked when they first came to Marquette and compare it to how they look now, you can see the difference in what Todd Smith has been able to do with those guys. I think the arrival of Davante Gardner has also helped Chris, as post players can learn a lot just from playing against each other every day in practice. As Chris and Junior have gotten opportunities to play, every good play they make and every solid game performance they have builds confidence- confidence they have in themselves, confidence their teammates have in them and confidence the coaching staff has in their ability. I think what we are seeing now is the cumulative result
of all of those factors and probably several more.

We're in the Silly Season of coaching rumors. You dealt with this as a player at Marquette. Do you think the "Buzz to NAME THAT UNIVERSITY" chatter is any type of distraction for the players, especially in this era of media over-saturation?

I think it really depends on how the coach chooses to handle it with his players. Kevin O'Neill was always very honest and forthright with us when he was being named as a candidate for other jobs. We knew during my junior year that Vanderbilt was pursuing Coach O'Neill, because he told us first, but he also told us not to discuss it with anyone. When he put it out there for us, it really diffused any potential distractions that could come up if someone from the Nashville press started asking players questions about it. I don't know if that approach will work with every team, but I think the nature of the relationship Coach O'Neill had with our team allowed him to be more open with us about those issues when they came up that year and the next year. I can understand that a fan may look at the possibility of a coach leaving for perceived greener pastures as a betrayal of some kind, but the life and career of a basketball coach is very different than that of a typical working American. When teams are doing great, fans want coaches to sign long-term deals and never talk to other schools. However, if the same team begins to struggle, fans can immediately shift gears and call for a replacement.

The job security of a college coach swings both ways and Bruce Pearl is a great example of how quickly a coach can go from hero to zero in the eyes of fans and the administration. The kind of staying power Jim Boeheim has had at Syracuse or Greg Kampe has had at Oakland is really the exception and not the rule. The lack of real job security necessitates that most coaches at least consider offers that come along. When Coach O'Neill left Marquette, I think he made sure all of his players had a very good understanding of why he made that move. While we were sorry to see him go, we understood why he left and respected his decision. In many ways, I think we were happy for him, because he was receiving the recognition he deserved for the job he had done bringing Marquette back to national relevance again.

Next up for MU are the Tar Heels. How do you think MU will combat the Heels significant size advantage? Do you think that UNC will have to adjust its rotation (ie, go small) to combat MU's strengths?

I think teams always try to make their opponents match up with their size and style of play, versus the other way around. When you try to play to the strengths of someone else, instead of your own, it can create a lot of problems because you're playing their game and not something you are familiar with or comfortable doing. Carolina is really good, really long and really deep, but I've always felt that we have a chance against any team that plays man to man defense against us, because that plays to our strengths of attacking the basket.

What are the most surprising aspects Marquette's play in the NCAA tournament?

I don't know if anything really surprises me, because we knew this team was capable of competing with anyone and we saw examples of that throughout the season. If anything, the fact that they've been able to battle back from deficits, hold off runs by opponents and finish games has been very satisfying. I know it was frustrating for everyone to see Marquette get to a double-digit lead and not win the game, but I think this team is peaking at the right time and finishing the games now that weren't coming out in our favor earlier in the year.

Notwithstanding the Sweet 16 appearance, do you think MU will be better or worse next year?

I looked at the loss of Lazar Hayward, Maurice Acker and David Cubillan last year and wondered how Coach Williams would be able to replace that leadership and production and I could easily look at the seniors this year and wonder the same thing. At the end of the day, I just need to put my trust in the coaching staff, as I believe they know what it takes to win and have our program trending in the right direction.

Thanks very much, Jim!

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