Marquette’s tournament match with Kentucky recalls ’03 Final FourMILWAUKEE — Marquette’s last NCAA tournament game against Kentucky helped put the school back on the map in big-time college basketball.
By: By CHRIS JENKINS/AP Sports Writer, The Daily Telegram
MILWAUKEE — Marquette’s last NCAA tournament game against Kentucky helped put the school back on the map in big-time college basketball. And it helped tip the scales when it came time for the Golden Eagles’ current crop of star guards to choose a place to play.
But that game also was Marquette’s last tournament victory. Now Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews want to make their own mark in March.
Marquette drew a first-round meeting with Kentucky when the NCAA tournament pairings were announced Sunday. The Golden Eagles are a No. 6 seed, and will play the 11th-seeded Wildcats in Anaheim, Calif. on Thursday.
The game will bring back memories from five years ago, when Dwyane Wade led Marquette to an unlikely upset of Kentucky to go to the Final Four.
‘‘Our guys were so ready to play that game,’’ Marquette coach Tom Crean said. ‘‘I think our guys will be ready to play this game as well. We might have to show a few clips from that game.’’
James, McNeal and Matthews all remember watching that game in high school, and said that team’s tournament run played a key role in their decision to go to Marquette.
‘‘That was one of the biggest influences on me,’’ James said. ‘‘I wanted to make that type of impact on a great program.’’
McNeal still remembers Wade’s triple-double against the Wildcats.
‘‘It’s a whole new team, all new players,’’ McNeal said. ‘‘It’s a totally different atmosphere. We’ll see how things go this time around. Hopefully it’ll be the same outcome.’’
The fact that Marquette hasn’t been able to build on the 2003 team’s tournament success isn’t lost on the talented trio of juniors, who have enjoyed plenty of regular-season success but have bowed out in the first round of the tournament the past two years.
‘‘People talk about the pressures on us and things like that, but this is what we’re here for,’’ James said. ‘‘We don’t feel any pressure. But we want to make a statement. We want to leave Marquette with wins in March. This is what it’s all about: Making a name for yourself in March.’’
Crean wants his current players to experience the same sort of ride as the ’03 team.
‘‘Their mark as winners at Marquette is well under way,’’ Crean said. ‘‘But to go and experience winning in the tournament, that’s something I want them to feel. I mean, there’s nothing like it.’’
Matthews downplayed the Golden Eagles’ recent tournament history.
‘‘It’s important to make the run, but it’s the next game,’’ Matthews said. ‘‘We’re looking at it like that: It’s the next game and we want to win.’’
The three guards cite their previous tournament experience as an advantage.
‘‘The experience helps,’’ McNeal said. ‘‘The more you get there, the more you know what it’s all about. You realize that if you don’t bring it from the beginning to the end of those games, you’re not going to win.’’
And this time around, McNeal is healthy. He had to sit out the Golden Eagles’ first-round loss to Michigan State last year because of an injured right thumb, something that still bothers him today.
‘‘I’m trying to make up for lost time now,’’ McNeal said.
And with the team at full strength, McNeal likes what he sees.
‘‘Any time you come in with a full squad, no injuries and things like that, you always feel better about your chances,’’ McNeal said. ‘‘We’ve been fortunate this year to have everybody back healthy.’’
Crean said the Golden Eagles will face a tough test in the Wildcats, a talented team with good guards that has had its share of ups and down this season.
In other words, they’re a lot like Marquette. ‘‘We’ve had some great wins,’’ Crean said. ‘‘We’ve learned from some tough losses. And we’re going to need every bit of that to go to California, because Kentucky is every bit the same way.’’