March 22, 2012
PHOENIX (AP) - They hand out the biggest trophy - the NCAA championship trophy - on the first Monday in April, not the first Monday in March.
No two teams could be happier about this than Marquette and Florida.
The third-seeded Golden Eagles and seventh-seeded Gators each came limping into the NCAA tournament - Marquette losing two of three, including its first BIG EAST tournament game, and Florida dropping four of five, including an ugly pair at Georgia and Vanderbilt, to close out the regular season.
Yet here they are, ready for a meeting in the West regional semifinals Thursday - Buzz Williams' team coming off two strong finishes against BYU and Murray State and Billy Donovan's squad still high off blowouts over Virginia and Norfolk State by an average of 30 points.
"I think like anything else, when you win, a lot of times the things that you're doing not very well get covered up," Donovan said. "And when you lose, the things that you do well, no one really talks about."
In hindsight, maybe Florida's losses - setbacks that certainly bumped its tournament seeding down a few notches and also made the Gators a popular candidate for an early upset - weren't so bad.
When the cold spell began, the Gators (25-10) were still adjusting to the loss of a key reserve, forward Will Yeguete. They were still trying to help freshman all-conference guard Bradley Beal get comfortable taking a primary role instead of deferring, which has worked - he's averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds in the tournament.
As for the losses - well, one of them was at a pretty good Vanderbilt team on Senior Day and two were against Kentucky, the second only a three-point loss in the SEC tournament.
"I saw our team making strides and getting better," Donovan said. "I think the biggest thing I tried to do was keep their confidence level high, that they were doing the right things and this is the thing we needed to confront and get better to push us over the hump a little bit."
You could say it worked.
First, the Gators overcame Virginia's pack-line defense, which was allowing less than 54 points a game, in a 26-point win over the Cavaliers. Next, Florida crushed out one of the tournament's great (early) stories, going on a 25-0 run early en route to a 34-point win over 15th-seed Norfolk State, two days after the Spartans had eliminated Missouri.
Florida became the first team in tournament history to score 70 or more points and allow 50 or less in its first two games.
"I would say we definitely didn't hit the panic button, but we knew it was time to buckle down and listen to coach and have some great practices before we got to the NCAA tournament," Florida guard Erving Walker said. "And I think it's definitely paid off for us."
Marquette (27-7) took a similar path after an 84-71 loss to Louisville in the BIG EAST tournament.
How to respond after that kind of game, the last before the start of the NCAAs?
"Just wake up and go to work," Williams said. "We're not perfect. I'm not perfect. Our players aren't perfect. And so regardless of the outcome, whether it's win or lose, we still have the same protocol and the same itinerary the following day, then the next day and the next day. Just continue to work and try to improve."
Marquette is led by a pair of seniors - a rarity all by itself in this era of one-year players and other early departures.
"I'm not sure if it's an advantage or not," Williams said of having a team led by seniors. "I have no problem with guys that are one and done or two and done. I just haven't done a good enough job of signing those guys. But at the same time, I'm very thankful for the leadership of Darius and Jae."
Only a week before the Louisville loss, Marquette had played a similarly uninspired game in a 72-61 loss at Cincinnati. The fact that Cincy, Louisville and Marquette are all still playing this weekend might speak volumes about those losses. But Johnson-Odom said some lessons were learned there.
"I think everyone knows in our program, when we don't play with energy, we're not good at all," he said. "And that's the main focus. That's something we can't be talking about going down the stretch, is our energy and how hard we play."
Indeed, if this game plays to form, it should be an up-and-down affair.
Florida leads the nation in 3-pointers with 9.8 per game, and both teams average in the neighborhood of 76 points. Las Vegas set the over-under at 145.5 - 16 points higher than any of the other three regional semifinals set for Thursday.
STUDENTS OF THE GAME: Four of the teams in the round of 16 have coaches who never played college hoops and came through the ranks as student managers.
Tom Crean, Indiana - Didn't play at Central Michigan and got his start as a graduate manager at Michigan State before going on to head coaching jobs at Marquette and with the Hoosiers.
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati - After coaching a local high school while completing his undergraduate degree, he got his first college coaching job as a video coordinator for the Bearcats in 1996-97.
Buzz Williams, Marquette - Before he became Marquette's head coach, the Buzzsaw served as a student assistant at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, under Juco Hall of Famer Lewis Orr.
Scott Drew, Baylor - Started his career as a student assistant at Butler and later moved on to Valparaiso, where he earned his master's degree while working for his father, Homer, the Crusaders head coach at the time.