March Madness is here, and the basketball action heats up in Milwaukee this week as the Bradley Center hosts the Midwest and West regional rounds of the "big dance." With fans flocking from near and far, the editorial staff at OnMilwaukee.com thought we'd help greet our new visitors with a week's worth of features and guides to everything that makes our city a great place to visit. It's "Welcome to Milwaukee Week" at OnMilwaukee.com!
Excuse Lazar Hayward if he was a bit surprised with Marquette's No. 6 seeding in the NCAA tournament Sunday. He's been used to the national media doubting the Golden Eagles all season.
"I definitely thought our seed was going to be way lower," said Hayward. We have to take our hats off to the committee -- they showed a great deal of respect for us. You never know what to expect, and we can't control any of that. They definitely showed us a lot of respect."
Picked 12th in the Big East in the preseason and still a bubble team three weeks ago, MU won 11 of its last 14 games and earned an a chance to stay away from the top two seeds in the opening couple of rounds. Marquette will face 11th-seeded Washington in the first round of the East region on Thursday afternoon in San Jose. It's the fourth time in five years that MU has been sent westward.
Marquette played 13 games against the top 50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index and won three games against teams in the top 20 (Georgetown, Villanova and Xavier). In addition, the Golden Eagles were 5-4 on the road in the Big East and reached the semifinals of the league tournament.
Perhaps the strongest case for Marquette's strong placement in the region was the fact that it did not lose a game by double digits until the final game of the season. Six of the 11 defeats were by three points or less. Not bad for a bunch that was picked 12th by the Big East media in the preseason.
"I think that they gave our program the respect that they are deserving of over the body of work this year, Williams said. I couldn't be more happy for our kids.
"It's been a year that's been inscribed in my heart and I want to keep it going, not for anything so I can pat myself on the back. But just so I can be around these guys, because it's a special, special group and I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to coach a group like this again."
In other words, this is the kind of team that a fan of college basketball should root for.
The undersized, undermanned, overachieving Golden Eagles were basically written off after they lost to last-place DePaul and fell to 2-5 in the Big East. Too small, too young and too thin on the bench. Suggestions of a playing in March were pure madness.
Look who's laughing now.
Williams is way too classy a guy to say I told you so, so I will. He should have been a layup for coach of the year in the Big East.
Seriously ... It shouldn't have even been close.
Marquette lost four starters including three that have places on the school's top 10 scoring list. Syracuse, meanwhile, returned three starters and added a transfer in Wesley Johnson that just happened to win Big East player of the year. Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Fame coach and deserves credit for leading his team to a No. 1 seed, but what coach lost more this season than Williams?
Let's even take it out of the Big East for a second and give you another example from the cheap seats. North Carolina has seven high school All-Americans on its roster just a year removed from a national title. No six seed for them, no bubble talk either. The Tar Heels have completely missed the NCAA field.
Perhaps MU fans should appreciate this visit to the tournament a little bit more because of how well this group plays as a unit. Even all-Big East performer Lazar Hayward didn't want to take credit for any of Marquette's accomplishments this season. Undoubtedly one of the most underrated players in the nation, Hayward is a bright lights talent that is putting his teammates far ahead of his draft status ... he doesn't carry a superstar ego.
"Don't give any credit to me," Hayward said. "Give it to all our coaches and players. All I did was show up and work as hard as I could and try to keep everyone focused and on task. I'm really glad for those guys."
Not exactly the usual words of a leading scorer and rebounder these days.
Perhaps that's probably why it's fairly easy for casual college basketball fans to root for the blue and gold these days, they are kind of unusual.
In addition to proving that there is no 'I' in team, Marquette has been nothing short of entertaining.
Fifteen of the 21 Big East games Marquette played were decided by five points or less. If you are a big fan of the Golden Eagles, you probably don't want to play cards while watching them. The anxiety of MU's many close calls may cause one to show a tell.
"There is going to be a lot of close games in the tournament and that is to our advantage now," said Darius Johnson-Odom. "Knowing how to play in overtimes and what to do in those situations is going to help us win games."
Despite the all the buzzer-beater drama and the strong finish to the season, a former rival didn't take long to predict an early spring curtain for Marquette.
"I like Washington over Marquette," said ESPN analyst Digger Phelps. I think they are a spurt team that can match up with a Marquette. Don't go chalk, go for an 11 vs. six upset."
No worries ... Marquette is more than used to proving the skeptics wrong.
Emmett Prosser is a former sports producer at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online and has covered the Brewers, Bucks and Marquette basketball in many capacities for 13 years.
Prosser also signed a year's worth of 10-day contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers' media relations department after graduating from Xavier University so he could get three-point shooting tips from NBA great Mark Price. The son of an English teacher and former basketball coach, Prosser attended Marquette high school.
In his spare time, Prosser enjoys live music and fooling people into making them believe he can play the drums. He also serves on the board of directiors for United Cerebral Palsy.