By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 23, 2011 at 1:20 PM

There were plenty of times this season that Marquette looked nothing like an NCAA tournament-worthy team, let alone one capable of reaching the Sweet 16.

The same team that throttled then-No. 9 Notre Dame and beat then-No. 10 Syracuse was dogged by late-game collapses throughout the year.

There was the game at Vanderbilt, which the Commodores won on a late lay-up. The Golden Eagles blew an 18-point lead over the final five minutes at Louisville. At Notre Dame, Marquette was up 11, but wound up losing, 80-75.

But where others see rain, Buzz Williams sees rainbows. For him, the tough losses were lessons his team needed to learn in order to get to the next level.

"We lost more league games this year than we had ever lost so there were more lessons to learn," Williams said. "I believe God gives us the same test over and over until you pass it. It's not first grade where you move on to the next test. You're going to keep getting the same thing until you pass it.

"I do believe that those tests, even though we failed several consecutively, helped prepare us for a new test. And I don't know that without taking the same test repeated times, we would have advanced to this test. It's hard going through it but as I told our guys, we can't miss what God is trying to teach us through this. If we do, then we put our ego in front of all of it and we're not going to learn anything.

"This opportunity to learn this lesson again. So we need to make sure our ears and our eyes and are hearts are open to learn."

Marquette finished the season 9-9 in Big East play, the Golden Eagles' worst mark since joining the powerful league six years ago. Some doubted if they would make the 68-team field and it wasn't until a pair of victories in the Big East tournament that the team felt safely off the bubble.

Now, they're one of just two Big East teams -- out of a record 11 in the tournament field -- to advance to the Sweet 16. Marquette, with a roster stocked with junior college players like senior Jimmy Butler and juniors Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, faces North Carolina Friday in the East Regional semifinal.

It's a long road this season and even longer for Williams, who worked his way up the coaching ladder over the years and after painful losses in the last two NCAA tournaments, has finally got his team over the hump.

Not one to dwell on things, Williams conceded that he hasn't given the journey much thought.

"I haven't been by myself very much other than when I'm in my car," Williams said. "When I have found a few minutes by myself, it's very humbling and makes me emotional.

"But its not about me. It's about our kids and the opportunity they have to experience this. I don't know that I'll ever slow down enough while it's all going on to reflect back, it's not my nature to do a lot of reflection. We need to get through today and quit thinking about yesterday. I think, partially, that's why we're still playing."

Loose as can be

Playing in a regional that includes, aside from the Tar Heels, top overall seed Ohio State and perennial power Kentucky, the Golden Eagles aren't feeling any pressure.

They've paid little attention to pundits who have ranked them near the bottom of the 16 surviving teams. They've brushed off the notion that they were the last of the Big East squads to earn invitations. They've ignored just about everything outside of the task at hand.

"We're all on the same page," senior forward Joe Fulce said. "That's one of the best aspects of our team. We all have the same mindset. Going into practice, it's fun but at the same time, we know there's a point to stop and be serious."

Beating North Carolina will be a difficult task. The Tar Heels (28-7) won the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title a year after missing the NCAA tournament. They have a big-time size advantage, especially in junior center Tyler Zeller and sophomore forward John Henson.

That duo will be hard to stop on the boards; the Tar Heels finished fourth in the nation averaging 45.5 rebounds a game. Fulce has a simple game plan, though.

"Just go get the ball," Fulce said. "There's no magic to it."

What's next for Buzz

Every Marquette victory makes Buzz Williams all the more attractive for athletic directors looking to hire a new head coach. Williams' name has been linked to several openings thus far and is considered a leading candidate to replace Jeff Capel who was fired after going 27-36 his last two years at Oklahoma.

Williams has acknowledged the attention but goes out of his way to deflect the interest, choosing instead to focus on his team. He appreciates the interest, but still feels loyalty to Marquette, where he was hired as an assistant after leaving the head coaching job at New Orleans.

"I want the focus to be on our team," Williams said. "What our team has been able to accomplish is great. That's not me dodging the question. ... Marquette gave me a chance when I had no job. The job was open seven days. I owned a house in Louisiana. I owned a house in Mequon. ... there's a lot of gamesmanship that goes into this, none of which I have participated in.

"There are people trying to get to me but I am not going to participate in that. It's not right by our institution, our players or our coaches. I will address it when the season is over."