Marquette Nearly Gets WACed
By Jeff Falconio
Marquette fans can breathe easy for two days. Would the year be an entire waste if the Golden Eagles hadn't advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament? Marquette scored a rather satisfying 58-57 win over Utah State even though the box score did not look pretty.
For a mid-major Utah State is a very good team. The Aggies are well-coached and familiar with the NCAA Tournament. They also won 30 games this year but went largely unnoticed due to their affiliation with the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC was a microcosm of the mid-majors this year, very top-heavy with not even buzz to get multiple bids to the tournament. Nevertheless, the Aggies were a tough draw for Marquette. Utah State likes to grind it out and from late in the first half and throughout the second half, the Aggies got to play their tempo.
It certainly didn't help that Marquette got virtually no production from the bench. In this post-Dominic James world, the Golden Eagles need a more than just Jerel McNeal to generate offense. So this time around it was Lazar Hayward taking the reins with 26 points. Both McNeal and Wesley Matthews struggled with shooting so Hayward's performance was huge. It also helped that Marquette played very good defense and when they really needed a stop with ten seconds left, they got it. Now the Golden Eagles face Missouri, another under-the-radar team that has the talent to reach the Elite Eight. The great thing about the tournament is that the schedule can level the playing field a bit. Even though Missouri put away Cornell, the Tigers struggled throughout the first half and probably used more energy than they would've liked.
A few other thoughts after a day-and-a-half of tournament play: if Washington meets Connecticut in the Sweet 16 get ready for a battle. Washington has balance but also a beast on the board in Jon Brockman. Also factor in that UConn will have to travel to Arizona for the regionals. Yes, UConn came out of the West in 1999 and 2004 when they won it all but Washington is physical enough to play with Big East schools.
We say it all the time and we mean it. Know your Sun Belt. Once again Western Kentucky scored a first round knockout as a 12 seed. The Hilltoppers did a great job getting out front early and forcing a short-handed Illinois team out of their game. WKU's next opponent, Gonzaga, looked a bit sloppy against Akron but the Bulldogs won't overlook the Sun Belt's best team.
I know the selection committee has a lot to deal with and believe me, it's tough enough trying to pick and seed the entire field but you have to wonder if the committee will change the approach to the four-games-in-four-days teams. For the past two tourneys an SEC team played four games in four days (with the fourth game being on Selection Sunday) and then got picked to play a Thursday afternoon game. Not surprising, neither the '08 Georgia team nor the '09 Mississippi State team had enough gas in the tank to get a win. Now you can argue that Syracuse looked good today but the Orange got two extra days of rest in there, having completed the Big East tournament on Saturday.
Once again Oklahoma's Blake Griffin got roughed up again. Griffin was flipped onto his back by Morgan State's Ameer Ali. Although Ali got ejected the Sooners must be worried about Griffin's durability and how other teams will "attack" him. Without Griffin, Oklahoma looked ordinary in late February.