Marquette muscles to Sweet 16

Originally Published: March 17, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Marquette is going to the Sweet 16, which is like saying the sweat-soaked dress shirts of MU coach Buzz Williams are going to the dry cleaner. It's almost a given.

On Saturday evening at the KFC Yum! Center, Marquette defeated Murray State 62-53 in a game that was part MMA, part football and all big-boy basketball. Unless you lost a body part on a play, the refs swallowed their whistles.

"We're thankful," Williams said. "I thought the physicality game was as much as we have seen in a long time."

Get a large bag of truck lug nuts. Now hit yourself repeatedly in the face and chest with them. That's what it's like to go 40 minutes against Williams' Golden Eagles.

This is a team of players who pull SUVs by rope during the offseason. Do handstands around the walls lining their practice court. Put on boxing gloves and go 15 rounds with the heavy bag. Marquette's players walk onto the court, and you think you're at the BCS Championship Game.

"It's hard to find a tougher team," Marquette's Derrick Wilson said.

[+] EnlargeJae Crowder
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJae Crowder sets the physical tone for Marquette.

It was a game epic in its intensity, as subtle as Williams' sideline jumping and clapping. No points came easy. The bracket said Marquette was a No. 3 seed and Murray State a No. 6, but the game was played at a No. 1 seed level.

For the second consecutive season, the Golden Eagles advanced to the Sweet 16. Last season, in the East Regional semi against North Carolina, Marquette lost by 18. Or as star senior forward Jae Crowder so eloquently put it: "We peed down our leg."

Crowder, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound former high school quarterback, said this as ice packs clung to his knees. Black thigh pads poked out of his white game shorts. He pawed at a plastic tape cutter.

Williams said some of his coaching buddies in the NFL have already asked about a Crowder football tryout. Murray State, which is as good as its 31-2 record says it is, would be happy to provide a recommendation.

Crowder had 17 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists, and played all but one minute. I couldn't begin to count how many cinderblock-thick screens he set.

"He's the baby of the family," said his older brother Cortez Thompson as he stood in the sixth row behind the MU bench.

The baby? That's not what Marquette strength and conditioning coach Todd Smith thought when he first saw Crowder.

"I said, 'Thank you. Thank you. Finally,'" Smith said in the MU locker room. "Usually they bring me those skinny guys."

Crowder's dreadlocks probably could bench 350. But he's at Marquette -- and in the Sweet 16 again -- after zero offers out of high school and two junior college stays.

"When Buzz came to see him [on a scouting trip], he had a terrible, terrible game," said Thompson, who was part of a 25-person contingent of Crowder relatives who traveled to Louisville from Georgia. "He thought he'd blown it."

Less than two weeks later, Williams offered Crowder a scholarship.

As Crowder and his teammates left the floor after the MU win against Murray State, Thompson asked for a favor.

"You going to see Buzz?" he said. "Thank him for giving Jae the opportunity. We love Buzz."

Buzz loves Crowder and the rest of his Marquette team. But if I'm Florida or Norfolk State, I don't love the idea of facing MU in the West Regional semi this Thursday. The Golden Eagles are good enough to go long and far.

Whomever they play, it won't be a pretty game. Marquette doesn't play pretty. How could it?

Its coach has salt stains on his shirt, although it used to be worse before Williams lost 30 pounds during the offseason and season. If the Golden Eagles don't lead the nation in floor burns, they're in the top 10. They muscle you up and wear you down.

"I don't know about their guards," Marquette's Jamil Wilson said of Murray State, "but you could tell their bigs got tired."

Murray State has nothing to apologize for. It was worthy of every compliment it received throughout the season.

"I just told them in the locker room I'm just sick because it's over and because I really thought we had a really, really great opportunity to make a really, really long run in this tournament," Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. "And I thought we belonged."

[+] EnlargeJae Crowder
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCrowder scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for the Golden Eagles.

Yes, Prohm set a personal best for the use of really, and, yes, the Racers belonged. But Marquette belongs more.

Think about it: MU overcame a five-point deficit with 7:43 remaining in the game. That might not sound like much, but five points was like 15 points in a normal game.

And there was no mistaking the allegiances of the fans. It was a game played in Kentucky in front of a pro-Kentucky and pro-Murray State crowd. A neutral site? Uh, no.

"I've never played in an NCAA [tournament] road game," Crowder said.

Phoenix will be less partisan. Or maybe not. Crowder's brother said the entire family, from grandparents to Jae's 3-month-old niece, D'Asia, might be making the trip west for the next round.

Crowder's dreads will be there, too. His mom spent 3½ hours braiding his hair at the Big East tournament, and there's no way she's going to do it again. Superstition.

"Yeah, I'm not changing them," Crowder said.

You never mess with a braid streak. And lately, you don't mess with Marquette.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Last Great Game," focuses on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter