Marquette, Wisconsin make noise before falling
As for how the three senior stars carried themselves beyond the bright lights, here’s everything you need to know: A full 48 hours after Sunday’s second-round NCAA tournament loss to Missouri, Jerel McNeal still hasn’t talked to teammate Lazar Hayward about his costly misstep in the closing minutes of the game.
Not because McNeal doesn’t care, but because he wants to summon the right words. After all, McNeal said, the Golden Eagles wouldn’t have been there without Hayward.
“I’m still trying to work on what exactly he needs to hear,” McNeal said. “But I’ll still be around for a while, so I’ll definitely sit down with him and have that talk.”
McNeal, James and Matthews have a few weeks left at Marquette; they’re all on track to graduate, according to coach Buzz Williams. But they will have a hard time getting used to the idea that they’ll never put on a Marquette uniform again.
“We haven’t started the reminiscing process yet,” said James, who at least had one last game to reminisce about after making a surprise comeback from what was thought to be a season-ending foot injury.
It’s a similar situation at Wisconsin, where a senior class that includes standouts Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft went out on a sour note with a 60-49 loss to Xavier on Sunday.
“It’s a whole different story if guys knock down just a few shots,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said after Sunday’s game.
Still, the Badgers’ first-round overtime victory over Florida State provided vindication for a team that rebounded strongly from a six-game losing streak in January but still was likely among the final few teams to be selected for the tournament.
Now both teams face uncertain futures with younger players.
While Ryan’s deliberate offense and tough defense generally doesn’t change much from year to year, Williams will likely make major adjustments based on the number of inexperienced players he’ll have to rely on.
“It will be a completely different type of year, because of the complexion on the team and because of the complexion of experience,” Williams said. “And I don’t know that there’s any way you can get around that.”
If Williams needs to teach his younger players a lesson on toughness, he’ll likely point to James, who made a startling comeback on Sunday after it was widely believed his collegiate career was over.
“A gift had been taken away from me, and it was just like getting it back,” James said. “I’m very thankful and blessed to be put back in that situation.”
Williams said he didn’t expect much given the length of James’ absence and incomplete nature of his recovery. And he was right; James didn’t take a shot in 17 minutes and wasn’t himself on defense.
But at least he went out on his own terms.
“I felt like it was the right way, just going out with my teammates like that,” James said. “You know, it was very unfortunate that we lost, but just getting back in there, just going out the right way, that’s what mattered the most to me.”
James acknowledged he was in some pain, but said he didn’t do any long-term damage to his foot. Now the Golden Eagles will find out if there was any long-term damage to the confidence of Hayward, who stepped over the baseline on a late inbounds pass to turn the ball over.
Williams, McNeal and James all made it clear that Sunday’s game wasn’t lost on one play, and anointed Hayward as the team’s leader next season.
“Lazar’s a grown man,” James said. “We all make mistakes, and he understands that.”
Williams described Hayward as a “pure” human being, and said he wasn’t worried.
“I think that he’s hurt by it,” Williams said. “We’re all hurt by it. But that wasn’t why we got beat.”
Williams displayed a few emotions of his own in the closing moments of Sunday’s game, directed mainly at the officials. While he recognizes that his reaction raised some eyebrows — television cameras caught him screaming wildly with his hand over his mouth at one point — he didn’t seem to have many regrets.
“I did not think things were justifiably fair at the end, and that was why I acted the way that I did,” Williams said, referring to officials’ willingness to look at replays and ensure that the clock was correct. “And whether or not that was the right representation of our institution, you could definitely argue that it wasn’t, but I struggle with that. And as I grow older, will I be more wise in how I handle that? I hope, but I don’t know that my emotional level will ever change in regards to what I think is fair.”
Williams described himself as “emotionally fractured” by Sunday’s loss, and said it would be a while before he watched tape from Sunday’s game. He wishes the Golden Eagles were still playing—and practicing.
“To be able to continue to be around those guys is what I miss more than anything else,” Williams said.