NEWARK -- A quick look at the regional semifinals in Newark, where St. John’s sports information director Mark Fratto had the line of the day.
In between press conferences, Fratto read off the do's and don’ts for the media, paused and deadpanned, “Welcome once again to Newark.’’
How they got here: Considered the 11th of the 11 teams into the NCAA tournament from the Big East, Marquette instead remains one of the last two standing. The Golden Eagles opened some eyes with an easy win against Xavier and then took out conference foe, and No. 3 seed, Syracuse to advance to the Sweet 16.
North Carolina easily handled Long Island University and then had to hold its breath against Washington in one of the many bizarre finishes in this NCAA tournament.
Storyline: The two programs have met four times before, but Marquette has only won once. It was a doozy. In 1977, legendary coach Al McGuire beat Dean Smith and North Carolina for the national championship.
This will have similar big dog-little dog feel, as the Golden Eagles are sort of the beggars at the feast here. They are not the top seed like Ohio State nor are they a program with the hoopla and tradition of North Carolina or Kentucky.
“We feel like we’ve been overlooked the whole season,’’ Jae Crowder said. “We look at it as disrespect, but we take it as motivation.’’
The fact is, Carolina has plenty of motivation here, too. The Tar Heels were written off early in the season, a disjointed crew that most figured were headed back to the NIT, especially after a brutally bad loss to Georgia Tech.
Instead the Heels -- aided in large part by a shift at point guard -- played their way into a No. 2 seed, earning their stripes via a strong finish in which they won 14 of their final 16, the only two losses coming at the hands of Duke.
“We had a meeting, I don’t remember when it was, but we had a meeting and our team chemistry got better,’’ Tyler Zeller said. “We all pulled together.’’
What to watch: Tempo. North Carolina likes to go and while Marquette isn’t against an uptempo game, the Golden Eagles aren’t interested in a track meet with the Tar Heels. The interesting thing, as numbers guy Buzz Williams pointed out, is Carolina only averages two possessions per game more than Marquette.
“I’ve always said that I would rather win playing in the 80s and 90s because I like that,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I think the fans like it, the players like it. But we have to be able to win games in the 50s and 60s.’’
Who to watch: Marquette has been a sum-of-its-parts team all season, but if there is one person who needs to be especially on against North Carolina it is Jimmy Butler. The Eagles’ leading scorer will have to produce on offense, but it is his defense that might matter most. Butler will be charged with guarding Harrison Barnes.
“You have to make him uncomfortable,’’ Butler said. “Make him feel like he has to work for every dribble and every move that he makes.’’
There was a time when Barnes was The Guy to watch in college basketball and then a time when no one was watching. The first freshman selected to the preseason All-America team, he suffered his freshman growing pains in front of the nation.
It is no coincidence that Carolina found its way once Barnes found his swagger.
The rookie can pinpoint the exact moment he felt like things were moving in the right direction for him. It was on Jan. 26 in Coral Gables. Barnes sunk the game-winning 3-pointer with six seconds to go against Miami, securing a comeback win for the Heels, and establishing something in himself that, up until that moment, had been missing.
“Some freshmen can come in and make a difference right away,’’ Barnes said. “It took me a while.’’
Of note: Marquette experienced both its nadir and its awakening at the Prudential Center here in Newark. The Golden Eagles lost here to Seton Hall 85-72 in their regular-season finale, a game that at the time put Marquette's at-large bid somewhat in jeopardy. Buzz Williams spent 45 minutes in the postgame locker room, not offering fire and brimstone, he said, but talking about who they needed to become. Marquette became that team -- winning two in the Big East tournament to get off the bubble and into the tournament. ... Perhaps the most critical move of this entire season was Roy Williams’ decision to move Kendall Marshall into the starting spot. The move cost Williams Larry Drew II, who elected to transfer, but it’s been proven well worth it. In two games in the NCAA tournament, Marshall has 24 assists.
What they’re saying:
“I think it’s time of possession. We need to score early and we need to score late. And we need to make sure that what we do offensively prevents them from scoring as quick as they typically like." -- MU coach Buzz Williams on keeping the Tar Heels’ tempo down.
“All the time I hear, ‘We took what they gave us.’ Well I want to take what I want. If you play zone, it doesn’t mean I have to shoot the ball from outside. I am still going to try and get the ball inside. The saying, taking what they gave us, I don’t like it. I still want to take what I want." -- UNC coach Roy Williams