Tuesday, January 04, 2011



My first question to Marquette senior Jimmy Butler when I got him on the phone was about "Boot Camp," the preseason period that MU players go through each Fall. Butler was going through his last one as a Marquette player and I wanted him to explain what it had been like -- I mistakenly thought it was over. "It's not over yet," said Butler laughing, "we still have some more time left." What does it consist of?

Butler described a series of workouts designed to tax he and his mates both physically and mentally. "Lots of running, along with just about every defensive drill you can think of," he said. "Shell drills, slides, jump to the ball, defending against back screens and down screens." I said it sounded as if the 14 days were spent down in a stance.

"Sounds like you probably have a pretty good idea of it," said Butler, "it's brings us together as a team."

Butler will be counted on to do more this season for Marquette -- with Lazar Hayward gone -- and that's saying a lot, because Butler balled at a level that put him among the cream of the crop in the Big East last season. Butler put up averages of 14.7 points, 6.4 boards, 2 assists and 1.3 steals a game during his second full season of D-1 play (he's another "productive JUCO guy" that Buzz Williams and his staff seem to have mastered). Butler also shot the ball at a 53% clip from the field, made almost 77% of his freebies and connected from deep with 50% accuracy.

The first time I saw Jimmy Butler live I knew he had a chance to be a very good player in the Big East, even though his stats for the night didn't come close to telling that story. If you go back and look at some of the available history of that evening -- it was March 4th during the 2008-09 season -- and look at the box score, here's what you'd see next to the name Jimmy Butler: 0-1 from the floor, 1-2 from the line, 1 rebound and 4 fouls in 20 minutes. He wasn't mentioned in any post-game releases or talked about in the post-game presser but I remember two things impressing me about Marquette above all else that night -- their first year coach's in-game work and the competitive character of Jimmy Butler.

Undersized and lacking depth, Marquette played with a 26-3 Pitt team (ranked third in the country at the time) for thirty minutes, thanks to future big-money NBA free agent Wesley Matthews, future first-round pick Hayward and the splendid Jerel McNeal. Then the burial came in the form of a 21-2 second-half run during which Pitt pounded the ball inside to their own future pros (how they weren't first-round picks is still unfathomable to this day) in DeJuan Blair (23 and 9) and Sam Young (18 and 8). That Panther team also had Tyrell Biggs and Gary McGhee to bang inside when they needed them along with Gilbert Brown.

Marquette obviously was over matched physically in the paint and once they started missing shots, a point that unfortunately for them coincided with the aforementioned 21-2 run, there was never a doubt that Pitt would win (the final was 90-75 and gave the 13th ranked warriors from Milwaukee their seventh loss of the season). But long after most in the media section had stopped paying attention to the game, and started to focus on their deadlines, I marveled at the skinny athletic kid from Tomball, Texas, and the way he battled like he might never get to play another game of basketball again.

Butler threw his body around with Blair, Young and Biggs, earning his fouls while taking some ungodly punishment. At one point Blair looked hard at him and Butler looked right back, causing Blair to break out in a grin. It wasn't a grin that was mocking -- those were saved for UConn and Hasheem Thabeet -- but one meant to convey respect. I came away thinking that Butler was going to be good and that if he was the type of player Williams would be bringing to Marquette, then the people who decided to elevate him and not go outside for the hire were either lucky, geniuses, or both.

Now Butler is in much the same spot as some of his former teammates, expected to lead a group focused on meeting the only expectations that matter, their own. "My job is to make everybody better," said Butler, "and the way I do that is by being a better teammate and building trust amongst all of us. That to me is the biggest responsibility and the most important thing, that we trust each other." Butler will do that by echoing the lessons he's had drummed into him for the last few years by Williams and his assistants.

"We have to fight and defend and not take bad shots," he says. "Coach always stresses to us the need to be unselfish, to pass up a good shot if your teammate has a great shot." Butler's excited about the season, the team, and helping the new faces in the program bring as much as their ability will allow.

"We have a lot of new guys who are very good athletes and that's exciting but we have to do a good job of showing them exactly how hard they have to work," says Butler. I asked about JUCO transfer Jae Crowder, expected to be a big addition along with athletic talents Vander Blue and Reggie Smith.

"I think it will help having DJO, Buykes and myself to watch, because all three of us know how tough the transition from Junior College to the Big East is and how hard he has to work and fight every night," says Butler. "Skill wise he's a big body and strong guy who can play inside out, he's Lazar-like but probably not as good of a shooter. He's a beast strength-wise though, we just need him to realize how hard he has to bring it every night and that's a difficult transition to make." That "fight" mentality once again represents Marquette basketball because of players like Butler.

I think back to that March night when I saw Butler fight like his life depended on it, like he wasn't inside a plush arena getting his head handed to him but brawling on a Cracked Sidewalk with machete-armed samurai's.

Somehow, I think the message will get through loud and clear.



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