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Marquette remains under the radar

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McClatchy Tribune
February 3, 2009
— Dick Vitale already offered his predictions.

North Carolina, Duke, Connecticut and Pittsburgh will make the Final Four, the voluble basketball announcer told the St. Petersburg Times last week.


Louisville coach Rick Pitino has all but issued a gag order on his players, muzzling any Final Four talk for the team that many a Joe Blogger has picked as a lock to play in Detroit.


Those teams have built Final Four-worthy portfolios.


But how many times have you heard Marquette mentioned in the same category?


“None,” guard Wesley Matthews said. “Have you?”


The Big East is widely considered first class among conferences this season, and No. 8 Marquette (19-2, 8-0) has not lost to a conference opponent, bringing its best start since 1977-78 and best conference start to Allstate Arena tonight to face opposite-end-of-the-spectrum DePaul (8-14, 0-9).


Yet the Golden Eagles often seem an afterthought, even as a Big East title contender.


Not to Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose then-No. 25 Hoyas were bigger, stronger and deeper than Marquette but certainly not better in Saturday’s 94-82 loss.


“If there’s anyone out there better,” Thompson said, “they’re not much better.”


Marquette was selected sixth in the Big East preseason poll and 16th in the Associated Press preseason rankings. The lowball seems ridiculous for a team that returned four of five starters from a NCAA second-round team and boasts a backcourt that has played together four seasons.


Marquette’s reputation had two things working against it: no dominant inside presence and a relative unknown coach in Buzz Williams, who took over after Mr. Popular, Tom Crean, departed for Indiana.


“It’s been like that all year,” standout senior guard Jerel McNeal said. “Let them keep not talking about us so we can continue to fly under the radar. That’s the best place.”


The underdog mentality works wonders for Marquette.


Its three-guard lineup with Matthews, McNeal and Dominic James works because they are more Cujo than teacup terrier.


Despite preparation that focuses on defense “72 to 74 percent of the time,” in Williams’ estimation, Marquette leads the league in scoring at 81.6 points per game.


And although Marquette lists only one player (a freshman who has played in five games) taller than 6 feet 8 inches and whose tallest starter is 6-8 Dwight Burke, the Golden Eagles are seventh in the league in rebounding defense at 32.8 per game.


“We have to rely on each other so much more,” the 6-6 Matthews said. “We instantly built a bond that other teams can’t manufacture. I have to box out a 6-8 (opponent) so Dominic can come in and get a rebound. That’s just the makeup of our team. That’s what gives us confidence.”


Williams doesn’t rave around Al McGuire Center with newspaper articles that omit Marquette’s name.


A workaholic, he doesn’t even know what the general take on Marquette is. Plus he’s too concerned about Georgetown shooting 56 percent to care.


Players say they don’t feel disrespected either.


But beginning with a grueling preseason “boot camp” that undoubtedly will become a Milwaukee urban legend, Williams has pushed them to work harder than any other team in the country.


“I don’t think there’s a magic pill for success,” he said. “The magic pill is the alarm goes off and you work as hard as you can. You’re intelligent in how you work and you’re efficient in how you work. I think our character has been revealed.”


Early losses to Dayton and Tennessee didn’t do much to inspire hope, but the Golden Eagles have thrived in conference play, defeating Villanova, Notre Dame and Georgetown.


The big dogs—Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse—are ahead. No favor from the league, a rematch at Georgetown and those four giants close out Marquette’s regular season before the conference tournament.


So, is Marquette a Final Four team in the making?


“It’s a possibility,” McNeal said.


A good possibility?


“Definitely,” he said.



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