LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- You'd never know it now by looking at his sculpted body, but Marquette's Jae Crowder used to be pudgy, to put it kindly.
Going into his junior year of high school, Crowder was a 5-foot-11 point guard. He weighed 235 pounds.
"I still had my Gary Payton shuffle," he said. "Backing people down. That was me."
What Crowder is now is one of the most versatile, important players left in this NCAA tournament. He led Marquette into the Sweet 16 for the second straight year with two enormous games at the KFC Yum! Center this week, including his heroics down the stretch in a 62-53 victory over a tough Murray State team Saturday.
Crowder had his second consecutive double-double, with 17 points and 13 rebounds, but that only partially reveals the 6-foot-6 senior's importance. His fingerprints were all over the Golden Eagles' closing kick, during which they went from down 46-41 to up 55-48 to take control. He hit a key 3-pointer during the run after struggling with his shot in the first half. He also took a big charge and came up with a steal late as Marquette's defense clamped down in the final minutes.
That's what the Big East player of the year has been doing all season.
"He doesn't care about stats or anything," Marquette guard Junior Cadougan said. "He just plays to win."
Crowder didn't even get serious about basketball until the end of his high school career in Villa Rica, Ga. He preferred football, in which he played quarterback. That is, until he broke his hand late in his senior season on a running play, and when he realized he wasn't going to play Division I in that sport. Besides, he had hit a growth spurt that took him up to 6-foot-4, helping his body better carry his weight. And basketball was in his genes, as his father, Corey, had played in the NBA and professionally overseas.
So Crowder got focused and started his college career at South Georgia Tech. To his horror, he later found out the junior college wasn't accredited, meaning none of his coursework would transfer to another school. He had no choice but to go to yet another two-year school, this time heading to Howard College in Texas. He spent the summer holed up in his dorm room, taking courses online to make up for lost time and not knowing a soul in town.
Through all that, Crowder kept flourishing on the court, eventually leading Howard to its first national title. He had to fight perception that disciplinary or other reasons sent him to two different junior colleges. But he found a kindred soul when Marquette coach Buzz Williams came on a recruiting call.
"He said, 'If you want a coach to be on your butt -- he used profanity, of course -- come play for me,'" Crowder said. "If you want a coach to give you stuff and not get you better as a basketball player and a person, go elsewhere."
Crowder loved the honesty, and he fit right in with Marquette's mindset of toughness and physicality, pulling sleds and doing other football-type drills to build strength. The 240-pounder is now built like a defensive end, and Williams said NFL teams have even asked him about Crowder. But he also still has his point guard skills and can play anywhere on the court.
"He can be a physical player and he can shoot jumpers," said 6-foot-8, 290-pound teammate Davante Gardner, whom Crowder sometimes checks in practice. "He does everything."
Crowder was a good player on a Sweet 16 team last year, but he knew he had to make the transition to great in the offseason. He spent the summer in Fort Myers, Fla., working out daily with his father, running through cones, using a basketball shooting machine and doing other exercises.
"You could see a drastic improvement," Cadougan said. "He really learned how to work."
Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom are the two leaders on this team, and the Golden Eagles needed every bit of them to slip past Murray State. The Racers showed everybody this weekend why they went into Saturday at 31-1, matching Marquette's intensity beat for beat. They just couldn't hit shots down the stretch.
And they didn't have Jae Crowder. The definitively non-pudgy version.