College Basketball Nation: Junior Cadougan

The real Marquette stands up

March, 29, 2013
WASHINGTON -- The Marquette locker room never got too chaotic or hectic.

There was some exuberance, chatter and prayer before the media entered the room, according to the players. But there was nothing like the euphoria exhibited on the court as soon as Marquette dispatched Miami 71-61 to advance to the Elite Eight.

The Golden Eagles, who had held their emotions in check for 40 minutes save one guttural scream from Jamil Wilson on a block, waited until the domination was complete before letting loose. The players all ran to the Verizon Center side where the Marquette fans were located and shouted with joy, as senior Junior Cadougan yelled, "We're here!"

Yes they are.

And they deserve to be as much if not more than any other Elite Eight team.

To read the rest of Andy Katz's piece on Marquette, click here.

WASHINGTON -- A few thoughts from Marquette's 71-61 victory over Miami in an East Regional semifinal Thursday:

Overview: Marquette had played on the edge for two rounds of the NCAA tournament, fortunate to win against Davidson and Butler.

The Golden Eagles were due to bust out with a comfortable victory. But who knew it would come against the ACC regular-season and tournament champs?

Miami had been in a few grinder games earlier this season, against Michigan State and Virginia. But the Hurricanes were not prepared for Marquette's toughness, aggressive behavior on the backboards and overall punishing ability to make shots, grab rebounds and convert.

This was over early, as No. 2-seeded Miami scored just 16 points in the first half and never seriously threatened in the second.

Third-seeded Marquette moves on to the Elite Eight for the first time since Dwyane Wade led the Tom Crean-coached Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003.

Miami finishes its best season ever at 29-7 -- but two games short of the ultimate goal. The Hurricanes tried to dismiss the importance of losing Reggie Johnson to a knee injury after Sunday's win over Illinois. Yet they could have used Johnson to help keep Marquette off the backboard, or at least contribute his five fouls.

Nevertheless, the Golden Eagles (26-8) were clearly no fluke in tying Georgetown and Louisville for the Big East regular-season crown. This team might not have had the early-season hype or star power, but once again it has shined with developed headliners like Vander Blue and Jamil Wilson and plenty of tremendous role play from Trent Lockett, Chris Otule and Junior Cadougan.

Turning point: I'm going early here. Davante Gardner spun and converted to put the Eagles up 10-4; Blue then pushed the lead to 12-4 nearly eight minutes into the first half. Miami was having a hard time getting more than one shot per possession. Blue then buried a step-back 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer for a 29-16 lead. The Canes were thoroughly clueless offensively, going 1-of-11 on 3s and 6-of-29 from the field before intermission.

Star of the game: It's a bit of a draw between Blue and Wilson. Blue made big shots and finished with 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but Wilson was also a difference-maker for Marquette as he led all scorers with 16, along with eight boards. Wilson converted timely 3s and found the seams in the defense to convert around the basket. He also had three blocks late into the second half -- one of them an emphatic, message-sending delivery. Miami had the style and the flash with the neon sneakers. But substance won over any kind of fashion statement on this night. This was a good evening to be a member of the new Big East.

What's next: Marquette can stay in D.C. for the Easter weekend, can go watch the school's men's lacrosse team take on Georgetown on Friday, and enjoy what has been a wonderful ride for the unheralded but well-respected Golden Eagles. Fourth-seeded Syracuse will await Saturday.
Five observations from Saturday’s evening games:

1. Hinkle Magic is real.

It had to end this way. We’d been spoiled with a wonderful day of college basketball -- treated to so many thrilling matchups that it was hard to keep up. Nevertheless, even with the hype surrounding Gonzaga and Butler, it was difficult to envision this game stealing the show. But that’s exactly what these two teams did. I mean, this is why we love this game. You can’t write a script that compares to the finish. Alex Barlow hits a big shot late, then commits a crucial turnover. Gonzaga commits a turnover on the inbounds, and then Roosevelt Jones charges toward the bucket for the game-winner. I couldn’t believe it. The Bulldogs played without standout Rotnei Clarke, who’d suffered a neck injury in last Saturday's victory over Dayton. Butler, however, didn’t back down from a Gonzaga team that is one of the most talented assemblies in America. The Zags shot 47.1 percent from the field. Elias Harris, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk combined to score 54 points. Butler wasn’t rattled, though. With just seconds on the clock, the Bulldogs maintained their intensity. They also maintained their pressure, which led to a game-winning bucket and a court-storming that actually made sense. What a game. What a day.

2. Deshaun Thomas needs help.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Thomas
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Thomas scored 28 points on 10-for-20 shooting; no other Buckeye had more than six.
So, if you watched the final seconds of Michigan State’s 59-56 victory over Ohio State, you’re probably still wondering what happened on Shannon Scott's 3-point attempt in the last seconds. Scott, who was trailed by Thomas, took an off-balance attempt that scraped the backboard on Ohio State’s final possession. But don’t blame him for the loss. Thomas (28 points) is the most dynamic offensive player in the Big Ten. He’s surrounded, however, by inconsistent offensive contributors. And that was the greatest component in the loss. Michigan State was led by Keith Appling (15 points) and Adreian Payne (14 points, five rebounds and a steal), who apparently has new life after a recent scuffle with teammate Branden Dawson. But three other Spartans recorded at least eight points. Thomas was alone. Aaron Craft (2-for-8) struggled. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (2-for-7) struggled. Scott (1-for-5) struggled. And while the Buckeyes proved that they possess the talent to contend for the Big Ten crown when they defeated Michigan last weekend, they revealed their offensive limitations in Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. Again.

3. The Mountain West is a beautiful mess.

You think your favorite league is wacky? Air Force scored 91 points in a win over Boise State. UNLV beat San Diego State on the road earlier this week but couldn’t handle Colorado State (Dorian Green scored a career-high 24 points). San Diego State scored nine points … in the first half of a loss to Wyoming. You figure it out. The Mountain West is Big Ten Lite. Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket features six MWC squads. And it’s a nine-team league. But Saturday was a good showcase for the conference. Wyoming held SDSU to a 2-for-18 clip from the 3-point line. Jamaal Franklin went 3-for-14 from the field. Colorado State is a gritty, rough team. Khem Birch, Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser combined to score just 18 points in UNLV’s loss to the Rams, who also forced 13 turnovers. This race is wide open, filled with quality programs -- six Mountain West squads ranked in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. And the other three -- Air Force, Nevada and Fresno State -- aren't what anyone would call terrible. Hell of a league.

4. Marquette and Cincinnati love drama.

Saturday was a great day for college basketball. And this game was one of its most exciting matchups. Cincinnati amassed a 29-13 halftime lead with a defensive attack that’s ranked eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. It was an impressive start for a Bearcats squad that had to go without Cashmere Wright, who missed the game due to a knee injury. But Cincy goes through scoring droughts. And Marquette loves drama. It was the perfect combination. The Golden Eagles lost to Butler on a Rotnei Clarke buzzer-beater in the Maui Invitational. They’re 2-1 in overtime games since Jan. 1. And they beat Georgetown by a point after fouling Greg Whittington on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds of an earlier Big East meeting. On Saturday, Marquette cut into Cincy’s deficit and ultimately forced overtime because UC eventually remembered that it rarely scores when necessary. The Bearcats were shorthanded due to foul trouble in a feisty extra session, but they sealed it on Sean Kilpatrick's layup with six seconds to play. It wasn’t pretty, but it was entertaining. Based on everything that had transpired in the final seconds, I figured Junior Cadougan would make his shot on the other end and send the 71-69 matchup into a second overtime. I think Cincinnati made a statement about its standing in the Big East, especially with Syracuse toppling Louisville on the same day. But Marquette also proved that it can contend with the league’s best teams. But it’s too hot-and-cold to trust as a true contender. Imagine if Buzz Williams’ squad were more consistent. At least it’s always interesting.

5. Iowa shakes up the Big Ten.

Thanks, Iowa. I thought I’d finally figured out the Big Ten until you beat Wisconsin 70-66 just four days after the Badgers upset the Hoosiers in Bloomington. It’s a cliché statement by now, but the Big Ten continues to prove that it’s the best conference in America. And this is why. A team such as Wisconsin can go on the road and beat one of the most talented squads in America (Indiana) and, less than a week later, suffer a loss at Iowa. Michigan beat the Hawkeyes by nearly 30 points. A few weeks later, Iowa takes Wisconsin down and re-enters the at-large conversation. The Hawkeyes committed just six turnovers in a game that featured a 20-point Iowa lead in the first half. Wisconsin shot poorly early but stormed back after halftime. It just wasn’t enough. Coaches around the league have talked about this for a few weeks now: The champion of this conference could have four or five losses. Maybe more. No squad has truly separated itself from the Big Ten pack. And it’s difficult to see how any team will when you have eight squads that could qualify for NCAA tournament berths. What a league.

A few more notes:

  • Alabama is 3-1 in the SEC after a 50-49 win over Texas A&M. Look, the SEC is not a strong conference. But Bama was in bad shape entering league play. Looks like Anthony Grant’s program is moving in the opposite direction now. Let’s see if the Crimson Tide can sustain it.
  • Detroit outscored Illinois-Chicago 53-14 in the first half of a 98-47 victory Saturday. I picked Illinois-Chicago to win the Horizon League at the start of league play. That was a great choice. Except it wasn’t.
  • So 4-0 Washington's first Pac-12 loss comes to 0-4 Utah at home in Seattle? Well OK then. Makes about as much sense as Oregon State dropping to 0-5 in the league after Saturday's loss to USC.

Maui Invitational Day 2 roundup

November, 21, 2012
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Here are some observations from the second day of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

  • After dominating Mississippi State on Monday, the North Carolina Tar Heels got a rude wake-up call versus Butler on Tuesday. On Monday evening I wrote: “North Carolina has much more talent, but the Bulldogs are scrappy and well-coached. The Tar Heels are more of a finesse team. The physicality of Butler could give the Heels problems.” That’s exactly what happened. North Carolina was outrebounded 36-27 and Butler beat them to just about every loose ball.

    After the game, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams admitted that he had the better players, but Butler and coach Brad Stevens had the better, tougher team. “They were more physical, more assertive and more aggressive,” Williams said. “They're really good. Brad's clubs are really intelligent. I like their toughness and their intelligence more than their talent, and I'm not trying to put down their talent. But I love their toughness and their intelligence.”

    UNC clearly has the talent, but does anyone on this team have the toughness the Heels needs to go deep?

    Sixth man P.J. Hairston was, for the second night in a row, the best and toughest Tar Heel on the floor. It might be just a matter of time before Williams puts him in the starting lineup.

    Most disappointing was forward James Michael McAdoo. In the tourney-opening blowout against Mississippi State, McAdoo was solid on offense, but had four mind-boggling turnovers, prompting Williams to comment after the game that “we can’t throw the basketball around.”

    On Tuesday night, McAdoo had seven turnovers to go with his 10 points and five rebounds. Williams isn’t the only one miffed by the performance of his big man.

    Most of the NBA scouts and general managers in the audience savaged McAdoo for his performance the past two games. “He looks good in a basketball uniform,” one GM told me. “But after that, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to like. He’s a pretty good athlete, but he isn’t very skilled and he doesn’t go hard all the time. There’s not one thing he does that really stands out about his game. He certainly hasn’t played like a top-five pick.”

    [+] EnlargeJames Michael McAdoo, Andrew Smith
    AP Photo/Eugene TannerUNC's James Michael McAdoo, here getting blocked by Butler's Andrew Smith, hasn't impressed NBA observers in Maui.
    McAdoo is currently ranked No. 6 on our Big Board Insider -- but could be in for a drop if he doesn’t start picking it up.
  • Illinois continued its impressive run in the tournament with an 84-61 win over local underdogs Chaminade on Tuesday. The Illini got balanced scoring -- Brandon Paul scored 13 points, D.J. Richardson had 11 and Joseph Bertrand 14. The Illini are off to a 5-0 start, but they haven’t really been tested yet. Butler should give them everything they can handle and will be the favorites to win it all after dominating North Carolina. But don’t count out Illinois. The team is playing with a lot more aggressiveness and discipline under new head coach John Groce. It has a terrific backcourt in Richardson, Paul and Abrams and size up front.

    A win in the tournament will be a huge boon to the Illini's confidence. They aren’t in the same class as Big Ten elite teams such as Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State, but they, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, may be a very tough outs in the league. I won’t be surprised if the Big Ten gets eight teams into the NCAA tournament this season.
  • A number of my tweeps laughed at me Monday when I said that NBA scouts were intrigued by Butler freshman Kellen Dunham. I don’t think they are laughing anymore. Dunham bounced back from an awful game versus Marquette and really put the dagger in the Tar Heels in the second half. He ended the game with 17 points and was 5-for-9 from beyond the arc. He’s still a little tentative and passed up a few open shots in the game, but his stroke is flat-out pure. Dunham isn’t your average mid-major guard. He was ranked as a top-100 player by ESPN and was an NBA camp invitee. Dunham isn’t a one-and-done prospect, but as he continues to get stronger and more confident, he could have a future in the pros after his junior or senior years of college.
  • The Texas debacle continued Tuesday with a 59-53 overtime loss to USC. The good news? The Longhorns didn’t get blown out this time and played with more urgency. The bad news? Offensively this team is just a mess. When (or is it if?) the Longhorns get Myck Kabongo back, they’ll be better. But I don’t think he has the talent alone to turn things around. There just isn’t a lot of talent around Kabongo. Sophomore Sheldon McClellan has struggled in Maui, going just 8-for-25 from the field and 1-for-11 from 3. Freshman big man Cameron Ridley was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the country by ESPN, but he’s looked out of shape and overwhelmed in the early going.It could be a long year, Texas fans.
  • Marquette fans, meanwhile, are hoping they have found a go-to scorer in junior Vander Blue. For the second consecutive game, Blue led the team in scoring with 18 points and three assists versus Mississippi State. Blue has always had the talent, but he has struggled with consistency and aggressiveness in the past. What’s different this year? “I'm just playing with a free mind and just playing off my teammates,” Blue said. “Junior [Cadougan] is a great guy, and everybody's going to double Davante [Gardner], so that pretty much leaves me open for shots. So I feel like if I'm making those shots, our team is a much better team. I'm not trying to do nothing that we don't do every day in practice.” Blue’s versatility, toughness athleticism and defense all intrigue NBA scouts. If he can show some offensive prowess as well, he could be a second-round pick.
  • There was a moment in time when USC big man Dewayne Dedmon was considered a potential NBA prospect. That time has probably passed. Dedmon has the size and athletic ability to be a pro. But he has no feel for the game. That’s always a problem, but it’s an even bigger problem when you’re already 23 years old. Dedmon had 8 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks against Texas but was just 3-for-11 from the field.
  • Butler will face Illinois in the EA Sports Maui Invitational Final on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. North Carolina will play Chaminade in the consolation game at 7:30 p.m ET on ESPN2.
Blogging about college basketball in the offseason is, even at its best, an exercise in creative determination. There's no basketball to write about, so we write about everything tangential to basketball -- coaching changes, transfers, obscure NCAA rules, recruiting, conference (ugh) realignment. From a work perspective, it starts off kind of nice. After a furious March, you get to relax a bit. But within a month or two -- long since past at this point -- I start itching for actual basketball again.

I must say, I'm glad to see the Marquette Golden Eagles feel my pain:

Anytime you get Junior Cadougan signing, you know you've hit a dark place in the basketball-free calendar. Brilliant stuff.

The good news, not only for college hoops fans but for that unfortunate Marquette choir, is that Midnight Madness is just nine days away. The start of the season comes in just over a month. We are tantalizingly close to real, actual college basketball. It can't come soon enough.

(Hat tip: Beyond the Arc)
College basketball is full of fun preseason traditions. Midnight Madness. Message board trash talk. Irrational hype. The expectation that teams with lots of returning juniors and seniors will magically get better. And did I mention Midnight Madness?

But I think I have a new favorite.

Every year around this time, members of the Marquette Golden Eagles men's basketball outfit stand in front of a green screen. They put on headphones. They sing. The results -- which are used in the Bradley Center's entertaining "Name That Song" interstitial, which runs throughout the season -- are predictably disastrous.

With the latest edition featuring the 2012-13 Marquette hoopsters now available, you don't have to take my word for it. Why, just see for yourself:

It actually starts off all right! Chris Otule's version of "Thinkin Bout You" (one of my favorite songs by my favorite new artist of the year) is perfectly credible, at least until that famous falsetto chorus kicks in. But Otule doesn't have headphones on, at least not yet. When the Beats by Dre come out, the guys can hear the songs in their ears but not themselves -- and man, should they consider themselves lucky.

Because everyone's in on the joke, I feel comfortable in saying it to Otule, Junior Cadougan, Jamil Wilson, Steve Taylor, Juan Anderson, and everybody else involved: Fellas, you are all terrible singers.

Then again, this is not the Orchestra of Collegium Vocale. This is the Marquette Golden Eagles men's basketball team. What did you expect?

Oh, and one has to feel for Cadougan; Otule seems like the kind of guy who happily sings in enclosed spaces whether his roommate likes it or not. We all know that guy. That said, after what Cadougan did to "Always Be My Baby" last September, I'm not sure he has any reason to complain.

(Big thanks to Marquette associate athletic director Scott Kuykendall for setting us up with the video.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- You'd never know it now by looking at his sculpted body, but Marquette's Jae Crowder used to be pudgy, to put it kindly.

Going into his junior year of high school, Crowder was a 5-foot-11 point guard. He weighed 235 pounds.

"I still had my Gary Payton shuffle," he said. "Backing people down. That was me."

What Crowder is now is one of the most versatile, important players left in this NCAA tournament. He led Marquette into the Sweet 16 for the second straight year with two enormous games at the KFC Yum! Center this week, including his heroics down the stretch in a 62-53 victory over a tough Murray State team Saturday.

Crowder had his second consecutive double-double, with 17 points and 13 rebounds, but that only partially reveals the 6-foot-6 senior's importance. His fingerprints were all over the Golden Eagles' closing kick, during which they went from down 46-41 to up 55-48 to take control. He hit a key 3-pointer during the run after struggling with his shot in the first half. He also took a big charge and came up with a steal late as Marquette's defense clamped down in the final minutes.

That's what the Big East player of the year has been doing all season.

[+] EnlargeJae Crowder
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJae Crowder was crucial on both ends of the floor as Marquette polished off Murray State to advance.
"He doesn't care about stats or anything," Marquette guard Junior Cadougan said. "He just plays to win."

Crowder didn't even get serious about basketball until the end of his high school career in Villa Rica, Ga. He preferred football, in which he played quarterback. That is, until he broke his hand late in his senior season on a running play, and when he realized he wasn't going to play Division I in that sport. Besides, he had hit a growth spurt that took him up to 6-foot-4, helping his body better carry his weight. And basketball was in his genes, as his father, Corey, had played in the NBA and professionally overseas.

So Crowder got focused and started his college career at South Georgia Tech. To his horror, he later found out the junior college wasn't accredited, meaning none of his coursework would transfer to another school. He had no choice but to go to yet another two-year school, this time heading to Howard College in Texas. He spent the summer holed up in his dorm room, taking courses online to make up for lost time and not knowing a soul in town.

Through all that, Crowder kept flourishing on the court, eventually leading Howard to its first national title. He had to fight perception that disciplinary or other reasons sent him to two different junior colleges. But he found a kindred soul when Marquette coach Buzz Williams came on a recruiting call.

"He said, 'If you want a coach to be on your butt -- he used profanity, of course -- come play for me,'" Crowder said. "If you want a coach to give you stuff and not get you better as a basketball player and a person, go elsewhere."

Crowder loved the honesty, and he fit right in with Marquette's mindset of toughness and physicality, pulling sleds and doing other football-type drills to build strength. The 240-pounder is now built like a defensive end, and Williams said NFL teams have even asked him about Crowder. But he also still has his point guard skills and can play anywhere on the court.

"He can be a physical player and he can shoot jumpers," said 6-foot-8, 290-pound teammate Davante Gardner, whom Crowder sometimes checks in practice. "He does everything."

Crowder was a good player on a Sweet 16 team last year, but he knew he had to make the transition to great in the offseason. He spent the summer in Fort Myers, Fla., working out daily with his father, running through cones, using a basketball shooting machine and doing other exercises.

"You could see a drastic improvement," Cadougan said. "He really learned how to work."

Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom are the two leaders on this team, and the Golden Eagles needed every bit of them to slip past Murray State. The Racers showed everybody this weekend why they went into Saturday at 31-1, matching Marquette's intensity beat for beat. They just couldn't hit shots down the stretch.

And they didn't have Jae Crowder. The definitively non-pudgy version.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Thursday's slate of second-round games at the KFC Yum! Center didn't offer a lot of intrigue. All four higher seeds won by an average of 16 points.

Maybe they were just setting the stage for a dramatic doubleheader Saturday. On paper, at least, we have the possibility of two great games. The opener features teams with similar, fast-paced styles, while the nightcap pits the tournament's No. 1 overall seed against an upstart that might have the right ingredients for an upset.

Here's a closer look at Saturday's two third-round games in Louisville:

No. 3 seed Marquette (26-7) vs. No. 6 Murray State (31-1), 5:15 p.m. ET

What to watch: Each team must feel like it's looking into a mirror when scouting the other. Both like to crowd passing lanes and push the pace, and though neither is particularly big, their frontcourt players are active around the rim. So the question is, which one does it better? Marquette has more ability to switch up styles and pound the ball inside, especially when 6-foot-8, 290-pound forward Davante Gardner comes off the bench. He is averaging 17 points and six rebounds in three games since returning from a knee injury. But Murray State should have a significant crowd advantage from its fans who made the short trip here, and from Kentucky backers who likely will pick up their fellow state school's cause.

Who to watch: Both teams have terrific lead guards who could match up against one another. Murray State will almost assuredly need a big game from star Isaiah Canaan to have a chance to advance. The Racers' backcourt will have to slow down Darius Johnson-Odom, who can fill it up from outside or stutter-step and drive the lane. But the Golden Eagles' Jae Crowder presents the toughest matchup problem with his versatility. The 6-6 slasher had 25 points and 16 rebounds in the win against BYU. It's not height but bulk that might bother Murray State, as players like Johnson-Odom and Crowder look like they've spent as much time on their bench press as their jump shot. "They look like they should all be in spring practice at Alabama and LSU playing defensive back and linebacker," Racers coach Steve Prohm said.

Why to watch: This has all the makings of an entertaining, up-and-down game that shouldn't tax the shot clock operator. Canaan and Crowder are among the best players in the country. The winner of this game has a very real chance at making it to the West Region final and beyond.

What they're saying: "For people to look at us as a Cinderella story, it's an honor. But we try to stay level and remember the things that got us to this point, and try to remember to do those things. Because we know if we do that, everything else will take care of itself." -- Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan.

"You just visualize what the moment will be like when you see your 14 guys celebrating going to the Sweet 16. And that's how you're preparing right now, so those guys can have that moment." -- Murray State coach Steve Prohm.

"It's like watching Syracuse. You watch six or seven games, and by the time you're watching the eighth game, you're like, 'Yeah, they just do the same stuff over and over and over. Not to be over-simplistic, but maybe that's why they win." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams, on scouting Murray State.

"They've got good guards, their bigs run in transition. We've got to get back in transition and keep the ball out of the paint. They look like they come to play and fight every night, and that's how we play." -- Marquette guard Junior Cadougan.

Of note: Donte Poole took an elbow to the nose on Thursday against Colorado State. The Murray State guard said his nose was sore and congested, but he plans on playing Saturday without a protective face mask. ... Marquette is looking to make its second straight Sweet 16 appearance and 15th overall. Murray State has never advanced that far. ... This is just the second meeting between the schools. The first came in the 1969 NCAA tournament, with Marquette winning 82-62.

No. 1 seed Kentucky (33-2) vs. No. 8 Iowa State (23-10), approximately 7:45 p.m. ET

What to watch: Kentucky should get its first real challenge of the tournament against an Iowa State team that took out defending champion Connecticut with ease Thursday night. The Cyclones can bury you from 3-point land by putting four shooters outside the arc on most possessions, but they also can get physical inside, as they showed against UConn. Of course, Kentucky still has Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and all that other NBA talent, and it will be playing in the friendliest Big Blue confines outside of Rupp Arena. So Iowa State will be a heavy underdog, but that's a role this team has wholeheartedly embraced.

Who to watch: Iowa State's Royce White nearly transferred to Kentucky from Minnesota two years ago. John Calipari visited him in Minneapolis and said "it was done." But when it came time for White to enroll in summer school, he balked. White, who has an anxiety disorder, said he felt uncomfortable getting on a plane, and the mother of his first son had just found out she was pregnant again. Could White come back to haunt the Wildcats? He's one of the most unorthodox players in the country, a 6-8, 270-pounder who serves as the team's primary ball-handler and distributor. If he can throw his weight around inside and find open shooters, look out. But Kentucky also has big men who can play on the perimeter. "He's not LeBron James," Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. "Can we pressure him? Yeah. He's not special."

Why to watch: The tournament favorite against a very game underdog? That's appointment television.

What they're saying: "We've got to do a great job of trying to keep their guards in front of us and try to make them shoot contested jump shots over us. Because if you do give up guard penetration to the middle, they have incredible athleticism and length, and they can just kind of flip it up there on the rim." -- Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson.

"I think I read somewhere that we were only picked in 32 percent of the brackets on the ESPN challenge. We have played that underdog role, and we have played it well. Our guys have gone out there and taken it personally. And hopefully, we'll do that again [Saturday] night." -- Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

"It's not nerves that I'm worried about. Iowa State is a really good team. I watched some tapes where I had to stop watching because I started getting worried that we can't beat this team. So I'm trying to watch a tape or two where they've lost. ... This is going to be one of the toughest games we've played in a while." -- Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Of note: Hoiberg played against Kentucky in the second round of the 1992 NCAA tournament when he was a Cyclones freshman. Hoiberg scored two points and fouled out of a 106-98 loss. "It was the only game in my college career that I fouled out," Hoiberg said. ... Looking ahead? Kentucky guard Marquis Teague said he hopes to see No. 4 seed Indiana -- which handed the Wildcats their only regular-season loss -- in next week's Sweet 16. "We want to play them because of the way they beat us," he said. "We're upset about that." ... White is Iowa State's only starter taller than 6-6, but the Cyclones have outrebounded their past 10 opponents. ... Kentucky's Jones is on a roll in March, averaging 20.8 points and 11 rebounds in his past four games.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Its best player out for the season, its morale deflated by a 20-point loss at Gonzaga in its first road test, a Notre Dame team that flopped against every name opponent it faced through the season's first month had a hard time envisioning itself as a player in the Big East with conference play quickly approaching.

"Maybe deep, deep down, but I mean, deep in there," Irish forward Jack Cooley confessed Saturday. "We just always gotta keep faith and just see what was gonna happen. We knew something had to change and hoped something clicked, and it did. It really did."

The transformation of Notre Dame from Big East afterthought to conference contender was never on display more than in its 76-59 thrashing of Marquette at the Joyce Center, the Irish's fourth straight win ending the Golden Eagles' seven-game winning streak.

The Irish entered Big East play a little more than a month ago with an 8-5 record, three double-digit losses and no Tim Abromaitis, a preseason all-conference pick who tore the ACL in his right knee in late November. Flash forward to the first weekend of February and here they are, 15-8 overall, 7-3 in conference play and just a half-game behind Georgetown and Marquette for second place in the Big East.

Less than three months after Mike Brey wondered if his players could improve enough "in the back of my mind, to get to the NIT," the 12th-year coach has not shied away from double-bye talk in next month's Big East tournament.

"I mentioned it to them a little bit as far as standings and what that means, and certainly that's something we're staring at, man. That's been good to us," Brey said, adding, "Obviously if you finish in the top four, you're in. You're an NCAA tournament team. We got seven wins. We got a lot of good wins in that left column in the league, as far as an NCAA-tournament résumé."

Among them: A Jan. 7 double-overtime win at then-No. 10 Louisville, a rout of then-undefeated and No. 1 Syracuse two weeks later and a strenuous victory at then-No. 19 Connecticut last Sunday.

Then came Saturday's performance in a contest that -- for the first 20 minutes, at least -- seemed destined to be another burn-it-out, tempo-turning test of mental endurance against a far more athletic squad.

The more eager Irish, however, broke a 30-26 game wide open in the second half.

[+] EnlargeJack Cooley
AP Photo/Joe RaymondJack Cooley and Notre Dame scrapped past Marquette on Saturday, boosting their NCAA tourney hopes.
They jacked up 3s from all corners, hitting 8-of-13 in the second half and forcing Marquette coach Buzz Williams to call timeout after timeout -- three in a 2-minute, 54-second stretch late in the second half.

No matter. Notre Dame utilized an 18-2 run during a nearly six-minute stretch, including 14 unanswered points to effectively put the game away.

"I thought [the score] was always teetering back and forth early in the second half," Williams said. "I then tried to keep it close by calling [a lot] of timeouts. I was just trying to keep it in contention, but they just continued to beat us off the bounce. We were scrambling around and that's why they had 22 assists. A lot of those 28 makes were uncontested shots. Eleven of the 23 shots were 3s, so that tells you they force rotation a lot."

Indeed, Brey said afterward he thinks he fields the best passing team in the country. He said sophomore off-guard Jerian Grant (12 points, eight assists) is the fastest player in the Big East. And, like everyone else, he lavished praise on the maturity of Pat Connaughton, whose 95-mph heat on the baseball diamond will remain the sidebar if he continues to deliver like he did on Saturday.

The 6-foot-5 Connaughton had game highs of 23 points and 11 rebounds, connecting on 9-of-12 field goal attempts and shooting 5-for-8 from downtown.

His monster rejection of Junior Cadougan closed the first half, and his slam with less than two minutes in the game punctuated the rookie's most complete performance.

"Anybody that stands on that mound, he stands on that mound, he's got the game on his shoulders -- there's a psyche there that maybe other freshmen can't have," Brey said of Connaughton. "He's had the game on his backside many, many times. So lining up a 3 to put you up six, or make big free throws, I think that's where it converts over. But people are still surprised, our opponents in the league, how athletic he is. The way he rebounded today in there, he blocked some shots, he was just flying all over the place."

The scene at the final horn hardly resembled that of Notre Dame's last game here, the court-storming stunner over Syracuse two weeks ago. Brey and his players simply walked to the student section, exchanging several high-fives before heading back to their locker room, a national ranking likely awaiting them Monday.

Those NIT hopes Brey envisioned not too long ago are now a distant memory, a carrot he knew better than to verbally share with his young team. Now, the self-proclaimed "loosest coach in America," the three- and potentially four-time conference coach of the year, will have to ready a young group that has grown faster than he expected, one he said he can refer to as "men" the next time they gather.

"I'll tell you one thing, we got a heck of a strong résumé," Brey said. "Our résumé is very strong with what we've done. And it's exciting to think about, that that's possible for this team after where we were. But I think our guys are very focused on showing up on Selection Sunday. And God bless them, they should be. Because they have put us in this position with their kind of focus and business-like approach, to go get it."

PHILADELPHIA -- The game lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Jay Wright was hit with a technical before halftime. Buzz Williams earned one, he says, for not saying a word. “I never got a 'T' for not saying anything. I guess you can get T's now for body language.’’

Maalik Wayns screeched a playground curse word that wouldn’t earn a pre-teen a date with a bar of soap, racking up technical No. 3 of the day.

And not even Twitter can claim as many tweets per hour as Pat Driscoll, James Breeding and Tim Clougherty made on their whistles -- 45 in all.

After surviving all of that, not to mention a game that offered a rhythm only Elaine Benes could dance to, Junior Cadougan emerged from his locker room thoroughly nonplussed.

“Ah, this is nothing,’’ the Marquette guard said. “You should see our practices.’’

This was a game that only the winner could love, a Bataan Death March up and down the court to the free throw line 57 times.

Make no mistake. Marquette did indeed love it, loved it a bunch. The Golden Eagles claimed their sixth win in a row the hardest way possible, surviving not only the aforementioned but also a one-time 18-point deficit for the 82-78 win against Villanova.

The difference between spots No. 2 and No. 16 in the Big East (and perhaps even spot No. 1 if Fab Melo isn’t cleared soon) is about as thin as a supermodel. Too many inexperienced teams, too few superstars have collided to make this one of the most unpredictable league seasons in recent memory.

The most talented team may not win the whole thing. The toughest very well could.

[+] EnlargeMaalik Wayns
AP Photo/Michael PerezVander Blue and Marquette made things tough on Villanova's Maalik Wayns, the Big East's No. 2 scorer.
Right now Marquette, holding steady in second place, is making a bid to be that team. Buoyed by practices that Cadougan said almost always include scuffles, the Golden Eagles make up in attitude what they may sometimes lack in size.

“It’s how we work. It’s what we believe in,’’ Williams said. “I don’t say that to be arrogant, but you can’t go on the road, playing against any team in this league and go through what we did and have a chance to win unless you’re extremely tough. But you can’t just be tough on game day. You have to be tough all the time.’’

This one required every ounce of tough for Marquette, especially after a Villanova team that is fighting to avoid its worst season under Wright since 2003-04 streaked to a surprising 28-10 lead.

Fortunately for Williams, he has toughness personified in the form of Darius Johnson-Odom. The senior, who doesn’t crack so much as the hint of a smile during a game, scored 10 of MU's next 12 points, singlehandedly bringing down the deficit from insurmountable to manageable, 33-21.

Johnson-Odom is more lunch pail than flashy, the sort of player who quietly dominates a game, dominates the statistics but doesn’t draw a lot of attention in the process.

He’s also the guy, Williams said, who dominates a huddle. More vocal than his head coach, DJO kept his team organized in the first half, not with firebrand and preaching but with a casual calm that delivered just as much of an impact.

“I think we were a little too confident early, not because we’d beaten them before or anything but because we’d won five straight,’’ said Johnson-Odom, who finished with a season-high 26 points. “We had a little too much swagger. That was out of character for us in the first half.’’

Marquette’s true character returned in the second half, that endless scrappiness that frustrates opponents. Cadougan draped himself all over Wayns, the league’s second-leading scorer. Wayns, who dropped 39 on Cincinnati two weeks ago, finished with 12 points, hitting only 3-of-10 from the floor. Cadougan also pressured him into six turnovers.

Cadougan and Wayns have been going at it for years, back when both were starring on the high school and summer-league circuit.

“I tried to contain him, keep him out of the paint and just make him feel uncomfortable,’’ Cadougan said. “”He’s tough, one of the best guards in the Big East. They win games when he gets hot.’’

Wayns never did, but Villanova, a young team struggling to find itself this season, hung around anyway. The Cats, in fact, led by four with just a little more than six minutes to play when Wayns was whistled for the technical.

Wayns screamed his frustration at Breeding after the official called a touch out of bounds play out on Nova. He cursed but most would agree it was a mild-mannered expletive on the scale of one to offensive.

Wayns may have been the victim of bad timing. Or cursing. The call came in the wake of a strong-worded edict from NCAA national coordinator of officials John Adams.

“You should have a very low tolerance for players who use profanity towards officials or who ‘wave you off’ after a call, etc.,’’ Adams wrote. “These type of actions call for Technical fouls. Call them!’’

Johnson-Odom made the two free throws and Jae Crowder scored on the ensuing possession, putting in a reverse layup to tie it.

The Wildcats, already down two big men in Mouphtaou Yarou and Markus Kennedy, never recovered.

If there is solace for Villanova it is that the Cats are clearly taking baby steps toward improvement. It’s likely too late to resurrect this season. This team seems predestined for a date with the NIT, missing out on an NCAA invite for the first time in eight years.

But in recent weeks the Wildcats are showing more life and, more critically, showing that folks other than Wayns can score.

Maurice Sutton, pressed into action, had the best game of his career with 11 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Dominic Cheek, the potential second scorer Nova needs desperately, had 16 and JayVaughn Pinkston 17.

And Villanova is playing harder, diving for loose balls against Marquette and forcing 16 turnovers.

Marquette, however, played tougher.

And in the Big East, especially this season, toughness wins the day.

3-point shots: Mizzou tourney no lock

October, 24, 2011
1. Missouri’s promise of putting on a college basketball tournament in December in Kansas City if it were to leave for the SEC won’t be such an easy outcome. Team-oriented invitational tournaments are dying in the sport. Few power-six schools play in these non-exempt two-game tournaments anymore. According to a tournament organizer, Missouri’s best option would be to play a semi-neutral series at the Sprint Center, like facing Gonzaga in year one and then playing the Zags in Seattle in year two. Play Connecticut in Boston in year one and UConn in KC in year two. Most non-elite tournaments have shut down because of the difficulty of scheduling these games.

2. The Big 12 tournament is in Kansas City in 2012, 2013 and 2014, rounding out the five-year run at the Sprint Center that began with the 2010 tournament. But any fear that attendance could drop significantly without Mizzou in possibly 2013 and 2014 shouldn’t be an issue for the league. Kansas City is a Kansas and Kansas State city first, as evidenced by the crowd at the championship game in 2010. I was there. I saw. The atmosphere was terrific for the two Kansas schools. Losing Mizzou takes away one of the local schools, but if other schools like Iowa State or Oklahoma State – two conference schools in hoops that have the potential to draw well – continue on an upward trajectory, the loss of Mizzou can be muted. And as long as Kansas and Kansas State are playing well, attendance won’t be an issue. If this tourney was in St. Louis, that could be a different matter. But it’s not.

3. Marquette returned Saturday from its three days outside Milwaukee, staying at a campground in log cabins, practicing in elementary and middle schools and bonding in preparation for a Big East top-five run. Roles are being defined and already there were some positive vibes coming out of the experience. Junior Cadougan is the lock at the point, Darius Johnson-Odom is his sidekick and the Golden Eagles are expecting consistent play out of Jae Crowder inside with lot of pressure on 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule, wing Vander Blue and Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson to produce to ensure the Eagles max their potential.

Sing-off: Buzz vs. Junior Cadougan

October, 7, 2011
A few weeks back, the folks at Marquette sent over this video of Junior Cadougan "performing" -- or, more accurately, unrecognizably screeching while wearing headphones -- the Mariah Carey pop classic "Always Be My Baby." Marquette was recording its videos for the Bradley Center Jumbotron, and Cadougan's brutal version was sure to be a hit.

Now we learn something far more exciting: Cadougan will take on Marquette coach Buzz Williams in a karaoke sing-off at Midnight Madness next weekend. And yes, the news -- via CBS's Jeff Goodman -- comes complete with glorious video.

If you're at work in a cubicle, go ahead and plug in those headphones ... now:

OK, so Williams is bad, but at least you can hear the remnants of a tune somewhere in there. I'm pretty sure there's still no way to tell if Cadougan is singing "Always Be My Baby." Will Williams take the trophy? Or will Cadougan be the big winner?

Whatever happens, I think we can all agree who the losers will be: Marquette fans' eardrums.

Junior Cadougan destroys pop classic

September, 13, 2011

And I don't mean "destroys" in the slang sense like, say, "Oh, you killed it! You destroyed!" No, I mean it's entirely possible Junior Cadougan forever destroyed my ability to enjoy a song.

Of course, I'm only kidding, but first let's get some explanation.

Every year, Marquette shoots some preseason video for the arena scoreboards at the Bradley Center. This year, one of the features is called "Name That Song." A player sings for a little bit, everybody in the crowd laughs, the "make some noise!" graphics come on the screen, and then it's back to basketball.

According to Marquette spokesman Scott Kuykendall (who was kind enough to send me the video), the Golden Eagles filmed this year's hits in a practice gym, where guard Jake Thomas and forward Jamil Wilson were on hand to witness Cadougan's effort.

So, OK, readers ... can you name that song?

Yes, yes, it's Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby." But that's not an easy guess! Cadougan's headphone-aided vocals are just that bad.

The funniest part? Kuykendall said that when Cadougan finished, the junior guard said he thought he had done pretty well. Apparently Wilson and Thomas' laughter wasn't enough of a hint. I'm not sure whether Marquette will eventually use this during a game -- it seems like it could pop some eardrums on an arena loudspeaker -- but if so, the crowd will be the ultimate judge.

Anyway, you have to hand it to Junior: He really sells it. He's into the song. He gives it his all. But a future as a singer? Yeah, that's probably not going to happen.

CLEVELAND -- In the middle of the celebratory Marquette locker-room scrum stood Buzz Williams, stripped down to an undershirt over his dress pants. Williams then ripped off his tank top and went into the coaches' area. A moment later, he ran back into the locker room, bare-chested and sweaty, to shout "Sweet 16!"

Maybe that's not the demeanor or behavior you'd expect from Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Calhoun after a big NCAA tournament win. But Williams is not the typical college basketball coach. And Marquette is not your typical Sweet 16 team.

It's a collection of former junior college players and other under-the-radar guys playing in the nation's premier league, for a coach who understands humble beginnings.

"We're a great team with a bunch of no-names," guard Dwight Buycks said.

Syracuse might agree with the first part of that statement, but not necessarily the latter half. The No. 3 seed Orange lost to the No. 11 seed Golden Eagles for the second time this year in Sunday's 66-62 East Regional third-round upset.

Marquette got it done with effort. Syracuse shot 55.3 percent from the field. But the Golden Eagles hounded the Orange into 18 turnovers by doubling the post and pressuring the ball. They raced up the court every time they got a stop or even after a made bucket, getting good looks before the 2-3 zone could formulate. They outrebounded their bigger opponent 30-24, including 12 offensive rebounds.

"Our goal was not to let them set up," guard Junior Cadougan said. "We wanted to push it down their backs and make something happen while their backs were turned."

Jae Crowder hit a 3-pointer to tie the score at 59, and Darius Johnson-Odom nailed the go-ahead 3-pointer with 25.1 seconds left. Both guys came to Marquette from junior college, as did Buycks and defensive stopper Jimmy Butler. Cadougan is from Canada.

Now this group is heading to a blueblooded Sweet 16 in the East Regional, joining the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State.

"It's four junior college guys up here," Williams said on the postgame podium, sitting next to Crowder, Butler and Johnson-Odom. "We were trying to figure out if we could eat at McDonald's or Burger King. We weren't sure what Sweet 16 meant other than it was our 16th birthday."

Williams is understandably drawn to those types of players. He got his start as a student assistant at Navarro College and Oklahoma City University. On Saturday, he recounted the story of how he got his first paying job at Texas-Arlington, which included all but stalking the UTA coach, sleeping in a U-Haul and conniving Oklahoma City into giving him his diploma early.

So the underdog nature comes naturally. Marquette needed it coming into this tournament after going just 7-8 in its previous 15 games and carrying 14 losses on the résumé. The Golden Eagles were the last of 11 teams from the Big East to make the field, and if the committee had to rethink things based on the way the league has fared so far, maybe they would be in the NIT. Ironically, the East Regional semifinals will be played in Newark, N.J., on the same court where Marquette lost to lowly Seton Hall on the last day of the regular season.

Yet here this team is after an impressive win over No. 6 seed Xavier on Friday and after toppling a No. 3 Sunday. The Golden Eagles played with an edge all weekend in Cleveland.

"Buzz is a great coach, and his toughness shows in us," Johnson-Odom said. "As much as he's been through, and as much as the players have been through, the only way we can show it is on the court. I think that's why we play so hard."

After the final horn sounded, Williams made the TV crew wait for the postgame interview. He ran up through the press seating and into the Marquette cheering section, where he hugged his wife, Corey, and their children. He later talked about how they met when he was a Division II assistant and how he took a job at Colorado State 18 days after she moved in with him as his wife.

"He went to juco and has been through that experience," Buycks said. "We've all come in through different paths, and he can relate to that. He knows how it feels to not be granted success right away."

Clear some room in the Sweet 16 for these Golden Eagles. They made their own way there.

CLEVELAND -- If you go by the seedings, Marquette was the 11th -- and last -- Big East team to make the NCAA tournament field. Appropriately enough, the selection committee awarded the Golden Eagles a No. 11 seed.

"We were just happy we got in," guard Junior Cadougan said.

They sure didn't look like a team just happy to be here Friday night. Talk about hot in Cleveland. Marquette thoroughly dismantled a good Xavier team, one that went 15-1 in the Atlantic 10 regular season. The Golden Eagles shot a blistering 57 percent in the first half, made half their shots in the second half and led by as many as 18 in a 66-55 victory.

The offensive effort wasn't a surprise for a team that led the Big East in scoring this year. Defense made this look like a dangerous tournament team.

[+] EnlargeTu Holloway
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMarquette limited Xavier guard Tu Holloway to 5 points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Xavier's star guard Tu Holloway went just 1-for-8 from the field, not making his lone shot until about 12 minutes left. Marquette threw multiple defenders at him, doubling him off ball screens and thoroughly frustrating him the entire night. The rest of his teammates didn't fare much better.

"That was one of our best defensive efforts ever," Marquette guard Dwight Buycks said. "We took their star out of the game, which was everything. They didn't really have any response."

That kind of defense hasn't been a staple for Buzz Williams' team this year, which is why it remained maddeningly inconsistent. Marquette came into the NCAA tournament just 7-8 in its last 15 games, and it lost its final regular-season contest to lowly Seton Hall. It was also good enough to beat Notre Dame, Connecticut and Syracuse this season.

The Golden Eagles certainly own the tools to be a good defensive team. They are blessed with quick guards who can pressure the perimeter and disrupt sets. Jimmy Butler, at 6-foot-7, can bother shooters with his length, and he really hounded the shorter Holloway on Friday night.

It's more of a concentration thing. Forward Jae Crowder said the team rarely practices offense in practice anymore. The majority of the sessions are focused on getting stops. Williams called Friday's effort the best performance relative to the scouting report his team has had all year long.

"We've got a lot of people who can score the ball," Buycks said. "Defense will get us where we're trying to go."

Where they're going is to Sunday's third round. And if they get a rematch with Syracuse, whom they've already beaten this year, that might not be the end. Not bad for the last team from the Big East to get in.

"We want to be the last one to stay in," Crowder said.