MILWAUKEE — The Marquette University basketball program has an edge about it.
It stems from its head coach who ascended through the coaching ranks because of his edge but still coaches with the same chip on his shoulder today even though he’s one of the nation’s hottest sideline commodities.
Buzz Williams’ Golden Eagles have thrived as underdogs this season. Picked to finish seventh in the Big East, Marquette won a share of the league title. A popular pick to be upset by Davidson and then Butler, the Golden Eagles survived both to move on to the Sweet 16 and will face Miami in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
Everyone picking against them has motivated the Golden Eagles.
The latest slight? Marquette was picked last — below even La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast — in ESPN’s re-ranking of the Sweet 16.
“We’ve been the underdogs all year,” Marquette leading scorer Vander Blue said Tuesday. “Nobody expected us to be good. Everybody said this team didn’t have a leader, Marquette couldn’t go far because they didn’t have a go-to guy.
“We see all that and it just adds fuel to my fire. It makes me want to prove people wrong even more. I like being the hunter rather than being the hunted.”
What Marquette is chasing is its first trip to the Elite Eight since 2003. The Golden Eagles have been beaten by double digits in each of their last two Sweet 16 appearances — by 18 points against North Carolina in 2011 and by 10 against Florida in 2012.
“By no means are we content with the Sweet 16,” Marquette guard Trent Lockett said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing we have to carry going into this game. Yes, the Sweet 16 is great, but it’s not our goal. We’ve had a good week of practice, guys have brought great energy and focus.”
Blue admitted the Golden Eagles were happy to simply be in the Sweet 16 the last two seasons and are much more focused on advancing this season.
“I’ve had enough of the Sweet 16s, I want to get over the hump,” Blue said. “We haven’t celebrated much about this. We are happy we won, but we got back to work. Just keep grinding. We just have to win now. We’ve been there far too many times to not get over the hump now.”
The criticism that Marquette lacked a go-to player or a leader might have been valid earlier in the season, but Blue has become both. His profile has jumped up a notch on the national level this week after two great performances in the NCAA tournament. He hit the game-winning shot against Davidson, then scored 29 points and took over the game against Butler in the Round of 32.
“This last month the only thing that’s been on my mind has been basketball,” Blue said. “When I’m at home, I’m thinking about basketball. I come to the gym late just to shoot. I want to do something that has something to do with basketball. I feel like this opportunity that we have right now is not normal, it’s rare.”
Though the other two teams Williams has taken to the Sweet 16 may have been more gifted, this group has a very underrated talent level. And though all of Williams’ teams have been tough and resilient, this group might define his style of play the best.
“I think the togetherness and the chemistry of this group is superior to the other two,” Williams said. “It’s been a lot of fun to coach these guys. There’s been very little drama amongst themselves, and if there has been drama they’ve solved it before it got to me. They enjoy being around each other and they want to compete in every drill, every day.”
On a mission to go where no Marquette team has gone since Dwyane Wade led the school to the Final Four in 2003, the Golden Eagles are going to be one tough out.
“Eighty minutes until the Final Four, just go as hard as you can for 80 minutes,” Blue said. “I just don’t want to go home. I know our team doesn’t want to go home. I want (seniors) Junior (Cadougan) and Trent to go out making the Final Four. It’s something in my heart, my desire.”
Missing a piece: Miami will be without one of its big men against Marquette, as the school announced Tuesday that center Reggie Johnson won’t make the trip with the team because of a knee injury that may require surgery.
The 6-foot-10, 295 pound senior averages 6.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game for the Hurricanes. Johnson was injured in Miami’s Round of 32 victory over Illinois. He missed nine games this season with a thumb injury, and the Hurricanes suffered two of their six losses without him.