By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 17, 2008 at 5:25 AM
Marquette and Wisconsin learned their destinations and opponents and have already begin their NCAA Tournament preparations.

Both schools play on Thursday, with the No. 3 Badgers tipping off against No. 13 Cal State-Fullerton around 8:40 p.m. (Central time) in Omaha, Neb. No. 6 Marquette takes on No. 11 Kentucky in Anaheim, Calif. at 1:30 p.m.

The Golden Eagles and Wildcats have a long history in the NCAA Tournament that includes nine meetings dating back to a 79-71 Marquette victory in 1955. Marquette currently holds a 5-4 advantage in tournament play; Kentucky leads the overall series, 7-6.

The two teams meet for the first time since the 2003 Elite Eight. In that game, Dwyane Wade registered a triple-double in an 83-69 upset of the top-ranked Wildcats to lead the Golden Eagles to the Final Four for the first time since 1977.

Marquette should be well-rested for the game, getting nearly a whole week of practice in after a 68-61 loss to Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament semifinals Friday night.

Kentucky, making its 17th consecutive NCAA appearance and record 48th overall, finished the season 18-12 and 12-4 under first-year coach Billy Gillespie. The Wildcats get a majority of their scoring from a front-court that matches up well with Marquette in terms of height.

"There's never anything that is remotely comfortable or easy when you get to this time of the year. Everything's a challenge," head coach Tom Crean said Sunday night. "Certainly Kentucky will be that way. They play incredibly hard. They are great competitors. Their coach is outstanding and they've had an outstanding year."

The Wildcats finished third in the Southeast Conference this season and advanced to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament before falling, 60-56, in overtime to eventual-champion Georgia. Senior forward Joe Crawford (6-5) leads the team with 17.3 points per game. Freshman phenom Patrick Patterson was second with 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds in a little more than 35 minutes per game, but was lost to injury at the end of February.

"It's going to be a great match up. They're a tough team," said junior guard Dominic James. "We know that we put ourselves in a position to get a good seed. I feel like we definitely know where we are as a team. We know our roles and we know what we're supposed to be doing, especially this time of year."

The winner advances to face the winner either No. 3 Stanford (26-7) or No. 14 Cornell (22-5) at approximately 5:45 p.m. Sunday.

CSU-Fullerton (24-8) makes its first appearance in the tournament in 30 years thanks to an 81-66 victory over UC-Irvine in the Big West Tournament Championship. Wisconsin, meanwhile, appears in the big dance for the 10th consecutive year, the 12th time since 1994 and 14th time, overall.

Wisconsin's No. 3 isn't much of a surprise, considering how the Badgers emerged as the undisputed champion in the Big Ten. Pre-season surveys pegged them to finish fourth behind Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State. Wisconsin rallied to knock off the Spartans in the tournament semifinals before routing a surprising Illinois team in the final.

"After the way we started and what was predicted and all that other stuff, for this team to be in the top 12 teams in the nation, I think people would have said 'OK, we'll take it.," head coach Bo Ryan said."

Unlike the Golden Eagles, who can utilize the vast number of Kentucky's national TV appearances to prep for their game, Wisconsin is playing a team that has had only limited exposure.

"We don't know much," said senior Brian Butch of the Titans. "You're able to catch them on TV and watch them a little bit. We'll get home tonight, and tomorrow, we'll be able to see what they offer us."

The Badgers' defense will look to shut down junior guard Josh Akognon, the Titans' 5-foot-11-inch junior point guard. Akognon started all 31 games and is averaging 19.9 points a night and is shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc.

Wisconsin needs to find a way to get into an offensive groove. The Badgers are one of the nation's best defensive teams, holding conference opponents to a league-lowest 54.4 points per game, but have undergone a number of scoring droughts during their recent 10-game winning streak.

Should the Badgers advance, they stand to face one of the two best freshmen in the nation. O.J. Mayo led sixth-seeded USC with 20.2 points a game. The Trojans face No. 11 seed Kansas State, with player of the year favorite Michael Beasley and his 24.5 points a game.

Both teams would provide quite the contrast to Wisconsin's defensive-oriented, grind-it-out style of play.

"You just play who they put in front of you," Butch said. "I thought we did a good job of putting our resume out there, doing the things that we've done and winning the way we've won and beating the teams we've beat. Nobody thought we'd be where we're at. You've just got to keep playing and beating people, and hopefully it works out."