PHOENIX, Ariz. — Marquette coach Buzz Williams loves hanging around football coaches and studying the dynamics of the physical nature of the game. So it should come as no surprise that his basketball team has a reputation as one of the most physically aggressive in the nation, prompting Murray State coach Steve Prohm to compare the Golden Eagles to playing a football team.
Williams isn't sure if that's a compliment, but he prides himself on having one of the toughest teams in the nation. He talks often with former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden and former NFL coach Herm Edwards.
"My best friends in the world are football coaches," Williams said. "I spent a lot of time on the football field at spring football, go to several training camps in the summers."
The result is a mind-set that begins in offseason workouts and is playing a critical role in their NCAA Tournament run, players said.
"In the summertime, he (Todd Smith, strength coach) just kills you," said senior forward Jae Crowder, who over the past 10 games is averaging 21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 5.2 assists. "We do a little bit of everything, whether it be playing football, playing anything really other than basketball, we do it. I think it prepares us well for this time, and it shows."
When No. 7 seed Florida (25-10) and No. 3 seed Marquette (27-7) meet Thursday night in the West Region semifinals, the Gators will face a team similar to themselves in many ways. Both are making their second straight Sweet 16 appearance. Marquette likes to run and keep the tempo fast, and it shoots well — but with the added benefit of quick big men.
"They've got great speed and quickness," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I think they're a great offensive rebounding team, they're an attack team, they push the ball very hard.
"I think part of the reason why they are so effective offensively is not only can they shoot, they've got a great player in Crowder. But what they do is they get a lot of balls back, they create a lot of steals and get out in transition, so I think the game will certainly be played at a very fast pace."
Marquette averages 75.9 points, the Gators 76.3. The Golden Eagles shoot 45.7 percent from the field, but it has been defense that has stood out in NCAA Tournament play. Their first two opponents, BYU and Murray State, combined to shoot just 34.4 percent (43-of-125) from the floor overall and 27.5 percent (11-of-40) on 3-pointers. Marquette has forced 16.5 turnovers per game. It is 14-2 this season when holding opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field.
"They're a very, very hard-working team, especially on the defensive end," said Florida guard Mike Rosario, who faced Marquette as a standout at Rutgers before transferring. "And they're a physical team. They play extremely hard."
Asked to describe his team, Williams said "relentless" or "resilient" — depending on the day.
The Gators say they are playing like a team that can match that defensive intensity. They had their best rebounding effort of the season against Norfolk State in their last game — against a team with every starter at least 6 feet 5.
"I believe we can," freshman guard Bradley Beal said. "I believe we play with a tremendous amount of confidence and we don't back down from anybody. Just because they're tough, we're going to come out and play and compete hard and play the way coach wants us to play."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]