NCAA Tournament gives Marquette a shot to showcase itself once again

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Marquette men’s basketball prior to its loss to Creighton in the BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinals March 10. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.)

It has been 16,423 days since Marquette cut down the nets inside Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1977 NCAA Division I Basketball Championship Game against North Carolina.

And shy of its 45th anniversary, the legacy of Al McGuire’s final team at Marquette lives on.

“I’m reminded of it all the time,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “Obviously walk by the statue everyday coming in here (the Al McGuire Center). There’s a lot of really cool stories involved with it and make no mistake about it, the number one thing that made that happen was you had great players that were connected around one vision laid out by Coach McGuire and they brought it to life.”

Come Thursday, a new chapter of the Marquette-North Carolina series will be added when the No. 9 seed Golden Eagles face the No. 8 Tar Heels in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

Of Marquette’s 13 players, it will be the first taste of March Madness for nine. Kur Kuath and Darryl Morsell are the only Marquette players who have appeared in an NCAA Tournament game, during their times at Oklahoma and Maryland respectively.

“We’re all just happy that we get this opportunity,” first-year guard Stevie Mitchell said. “Now we want to go make the best of this opportunity. We know that getting selected is just the first step (so) now we got to go win and actually like, do something.”

Despite the limited postseason experience amongst the Golden Eagles players, Smart will be guiding his third program to the Big Dance. This will be the ninth overall NCAA appearance for Smart.

His NCAA Tournament resume is highlighted by VCU’s run in 2011 to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed after starting its run in Dayton, Ohio, as one of the “First Four.”

Smart said he is reminded of something that then Old Dominion head coach Blaine Taylor said following the Rams run, when leading this year’s Marquette team to the NCAA’s.

“He didn’t really like all the attention that we got from going to the Final Four. He made a great statement and I actually think there’s a certain real level of truth in this, not just about our team, but about basketball in March at this college level,” Smart said. “He said the NCAA Tournament can make rock stars out of ordinary people. So if you win in March, it reflects a certain way.”

The Golden Eagles, the projected No. 9 team in the BIG EAST Preseason Coaches Poll, helped their NCAA resume with its seven-game winning streak back in January that included wins against six ranked teams.

However, Marquette then lost four of its last seven regular season games. The Golden Eagles then suffered an early loss in the BIG EAST Tournament to Creighton last Thursday in New York.

“I thought we played our best when we had that underdog mentality,” redshirt first-year forward Oso Ighodaro said. “And then the public kind of changed the view on us and they started having these high expectations. I think people are kind of down on us again and we love this. I feel like we’re underdogs agains and its March so anything can happen.”

First-year guard Stevie Mitchell said in order for Marquette to re-find its edge defensively, as it was during the seven-game winning streak, comes down to finding a way to get back to how connected they were as a team during that stretch.

The matchup with North Carolina is an intriguing one with Smart’s “havoc defense” and the Tar Heels ability to create a strong inside presence underneath the basket, which is led by Armando Bacot.

One area where Marquette might be able to control the pace is causing turnovers, which has been a problem this season amongst the North Carolina guards. This season, the Tar Heels are averaging 11.7 turnovers per game while the Golden Eagles are causing 13.8 per game amongst its opponents.

“North Carolina has always been a team that can get going in transition and their guards are dangerous,” Smart said. “We’ll do some different things (but) I think it still comes down to defensively making sure we sprint back, do a good job of transition, doing a great job defending them in the half court and not giving them easy opportunities.”

After defeating Virginia in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, North Carolina fell to Virginia Tech in the semifinals at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Hokies held guard sophomore guard R.J. Davis to 10 points while sophomore guard Caleb Love led with 21 points.

“What Virginia Tech was able to do when they beat them in North Carolina’s last game was, not hold those guys scoreless, but make things as challenging as possible for their best players,” Smart said.

If Marquette wins, it will face the winner of No. 1 Baylor vs No. 16 Norfolk State Saturday. Smart said Marquette will have a chance in appearing in the Round of 32 if they focus on two things.

“Extreme commitment and dedication to each other and to all the elements that go into winning,” Smart said. “Whether it’s sprint back on defense, playing in a stance throughout the possession or grabbing the ball, sharing the basketball on offense. If we focus on each other and what goes into winning, we got a really good chance.”

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.