Buzz Williams and the rest of the Marquette Golden Eagles know they probably shouldn't still be playing this late into March.
But don't think that will slow them down against North Carolina on Friday night.
"Obviously we're not supposed to be here, everybody knows it," senior Jimmy Butler said. "But we're going to fight to the best of our ability until the very end and hopefully we can win another game."
Fighting to the best of their abilities is exactly what the Golden Eagles have done to get to this point, knocking off sixth-seeded Xavier, which had been to the Sweet 16 the past three seasons, and third-seeded Syracuse two nights later.
A pair of stellar defensive outings have propelled Marquette into the Sweet 16, as Williams' crew has allowed an average of 58.5 points and forced 33 turnovers in those two wins.
"Our defensive intensity is real big down the stretch," Butler said. "You have to play defense if you want to win games in March and Buzz preaches that. I guess he really got that stuck in our heads."
The defense will have to continue to ride the Golden Eagles in the tournament against the Tar Heels, who have averaged 94 points in its two tournament wins.
Buzz hasn't slept since he got back from Cleveland, and says that trend will probably continue as he prepares himself and the team for the Tar Heels.
Doing so will be no easy task. The ACC regular season champions are led a host of future NBA players who Williams described as, "really long, really athletic, and really fast."
Freshman wing Harrison Barnes has averaged 25.5 points in his last four outings and, after a slow start, has elevated his play to a new level over the past two months, earning him a spot on the all-ACC second team.
Point guard Kendall Marshall will give Marquette's back court all they can handle as well. The freshman point guard has averaged 7.6 assists per game since taking over as a starter, and double-doubled with 10 points and 14 assists in UNC's second round win over seventh-seeded Washington.
But Marquette's biggest problem could be in the front court, where a budding sophomore and a rising junior will be waiting.
John Henson has elevated his game in his second season in Chapel Hill, averaging a double-double (11.9 points, 10.1 rebounds) and also earning all-ACC second team honors. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year has blocked 10 shots in North Carolina's two wins, thanks in part to his 88-inch wingspan, and also grabbed double-digit rebounds in 18 straight games.
Tyler Zeller finally got his chance to earn minutes this season and has exploded onto the scene, averaging 15.2 points and 7.1 rebounds. He has scored 55 points in the Tar Heels' first two games, making over 60 percent of his shots and getting to the free throw line 26 times, and his hook shot from the right baseline will be tough to defend, regardless of who is guarding him and how well he defends the junior.
With a thin front court that tends to be in foul trouble more times than not, Marquette will need to continue its recent stingy defense.
In the win over Syracuse Sunday night, Chris Otule and Jae Crowder led the Marquette bigs by holding forward Rick Jackson to just 7 points and 4 rebounds. When asked what it will take to stop the tandem of Henson and Zeller, Crowder needed just one word.
"Heart," he said. "There's no way that I should be able to battle [Henson] with his size and his ability to play inside. But I feel like my heart and my drive and knowing that my teammates are depending on me to get things done will carry me over that edge."
Marquette will be the underdog Friday night, just as it has been all season long, but that hasn't deterred the team's work ethic, and Crowder doesn't expect that to start now.
"All year teams ‘on paper' have been ahead of us," Crowder said. "We've fought night in and night out with those teams and I feel like we can compete with the best of them. The dedication we put in coming into the season and the hard work you put in has built the confidence we have going into these games.
"We have to be that way in order to survive. You have to bond together to get any great results," he added.
While Marquette might not have the statistics or size to match up with the Tar Heels, Butler said the team's chemistry is something that can not be measured, but means just as much.
"You have to know everybody's tendencies and how everybody feels," Butler said. "And if you know how they feel off the court, you sure know how they feel on the court. That's going to play a key role down the stretch."
Unfortunately for Marquette, their win over Syracuse in the third round was the only upset from the East region. Top-ranked Ohio State, North Carolina, and fourth-seeded Kentucky all advanced to join Marquette in the region's quarterfinals.
Aside from the 13 national titles the other three programs have won, they also combined to lose a total of 16 games this season. Marquette lost 14 on its own.
"Thad Matta will be in the Hall of Fame before he retires. Roy Williams is already in the Hall of Fame, and John Calipari will be in the Hall of Fame before he retires. So pick which one doesn't belong. The ‘JuCo guy,'" coach Buzz Williams joked.
When Marquette isn't holding down the tournament's top offensive team, Darius Johnson-Odom said the offense will need to attack North Carolina's forwards, just like they did against Syracuse when they got to the line 23 times.
"We're going to put pressure on them and we're not going to stop," Johnson-Odom said. "We're going to attack the basket until they stop us, and that's what we're good at. When we get to the free throw line as much as we did against Syracuse it puts pressure on the opponent's defense. I think we have to do that in order to keep up with them."
Butler added that playing in the Big East has already given Marquette a head start in preparing for the Tar Heels.
"You think you can battle with anybody," Butler said. "When you play agaisnt that kind of competition we did every night, I don't think you'll back down against anyone from any conference."
For Buzz Williams, it comes down to playing the best basketball his team can play for 40 minutes.
"You have to be the best you can be or you go home," Williams said. "That's the end of it."
Up to the challenge
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