published Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Marquette Golden Eagles capable of deep NCAA run

In the four years that he has coached the Marquette Golden Eagles, Buzz Williams has never previously addressed the home crowd inside Milwaukee's Bradley Center following a Senior Night game.

Then again, Williams never previously had two players as tough and talented and successful as outgoing seniors Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, who were each named first-team All-Big East Conference on Sunday.

So following Saturday's 83-69 win over Georgetown, a win to secure second place in the league, Williams could hold back his enthusiasm and appreciation no longer.

"It's the first time I've taken the microphone after we won," he said. "That's not to be critical of the previous seniors, but none of those previous seniors had ever been involved in a game that added to their legacy relative to what was at stake.

"We were playing for second place in the best league in the country, the most number of [conference] wins ever, undefeated at home ... that we won obviously helped a lot of things."

Crowder (17.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Johnson-Odom (18.3 ppg, 2.7 assists) have helped the Golden Eagles so much that they now stand No. 9 in the latest Associated Press poll, are seventh in RPI and 16th in schedule strength.

Beyond that, Marquette has won 13 of its last 15 games to stand 25-6 overall and 14-4 in the Big East heading into this week's conference tourney in Madison Square Garden.

"They are both tremendous players," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of Crowder and Johnson-Odom after the Orange struggled to ground the visiting Eagles 73-66.

"For their size, they are as good as anybody in the league. They play big. They play tough. They are tough guys. They rebound. They defend. They are both just tremendous players."

The 6-foot-6 Crowder grew up in Villa Rica, Ga., went to two junior colleges in two years -- eventually leading Howard College in Texas to its first national title -- and then became something of a cult hero at Marquette for his flowing locks and versatile game.

The 6-2 Johnson-Odom is a similarly undersized yet physical guard who spearheads one of the most dangerous offenses in the country.

"Not too many people have had success guarding them," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "They can really get to the basket off the dribble, and if you foul they can hit their free throws."

Indeed, the Golden Eagles have made almost as many free throws (543) as their opponents have taken (559). Smaller and quicker, they've managed to hit 72.4 percent of their foul shots.

After a particularly frustrating game failing to stop Marquette, interim Connecticut coach George Blaney said after his defending national champs lost by 15 at home: "We're one of the top two or three teams in the country in fewest fouls committed, and they shot 26 foul shots. Their speed and strength almost blew our doors off."

That's the hope for Marquette going forward as the program the late Al McGuire coached to the 1977 national championship attempts to return to the Final Four for the first time since NBA star Dwyane Wade led Marquette there is 2003.

Just like then, this year's Final Four is in New Orleans. Just like then, Marquette figures to be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed (it was third in the Midwest that season), with Kentucky and Kansas early favorites.

But Marquette and Wade dispatched UK in a regional final before falling to Kansas in the Final Four.

But that team pretty much had Wade and only Wade. This team has Crowder and Johnson-Odom.

"You can't measure heart," Williams said a couple of weeks ago. "And in a world where we try to count everything, not everything counts. You can't quantify the heart and the brains that those two seniors are playing with."

But you just might surmise that their heart, brains and talent just might be enough to return Marquette to another Final Four in New Orleans, hopeful that two weapons will be better than Wade's one.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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