O'Neill hopes Warriors can pass 2nd Duke test

March 24, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

KNOXVILLE, TENN — KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- How far have the Marquette Warriors come? Far enough to give themselves a chance to return a favor to Duke tonight in the biggest game Marquette has played in 15 years.

The basketball revival at Marquette is in full swing under fifth-year coach Kevin O'Neill. The Warriors are an era removed from the days of Al McGuire and the 1977 national title that stands as the program's hallmark achievement. But, they have also left behind the mediocrity that defined the team throughout the latter half of the 1980s.

Two years ago, Marquette quietly won 16 games in its first year as a member of the Great Midwest Conference. Last year, the Warriors enjoyed their first 20-win season in eight years, before bowing out in the opening round of their first NCAA tournament since 1983. Last week, however, the Warriors, seeded sixth in the Southeast Region, grabbed the nation's attention by upsetting third-seeded Kentucky, 75-63, in the second round.

Which brings Marquette (24-8) to the bright lights of the Sweet 16. Marquette has not gone this deep into the national tournament since 1979. When they take the floor in the regional semifinal at Thompson-Boling Arena tonight against second-seeded, tournament-tested Duke, the Warriors will face a team that gave them a memorable lesson three years ago, when O'Neill's rebuilding project was in its infancy.

It was the opening round of the Preseason NIT. Duke whipped Marquette, 87-74, in the first step of the Blue Devils' drive to a national championship. For Marquette, it was the first growing pain of an 11-18season.

"I remember that game. We really thought that, as freshmen, we were going to come in, score a lot and do whatever we wanted," Marquette senior forward Damon Key said. "Duke put us into reality."

"Then we went out to Kansas and they spanked our bottoms," O'Neill recalled. "After that, we knew we had a lot of work to do, but we also knew that if we stuck to it, we would get our opportunities."

Key, guard Robb Logterman and center Jim McIlvaine were freshmen on that team. They were the heart of O'Neill's key recruiting class, and they laid the foundation that has put the Warriors in position to make history.

Defense and discipline best explain Marquette's comeback. Using the size of the 7-foot-1 McIlvaine and the 6-8 Key, the quick hands of point guard Tony Miller and excellent positioning and switching, the Warriors have put up imposing defensive numbers. They are allowing just 62 points per game -- fifth-best in the nation -- and are tops in field-goal percentage defense (35.6). McIlvaine is the country's top shot blocker.

Although they are not one of the quicker teams left in the tournament, Marquette makes up for that shortcoming with a deliberate style that features few mistakes. Miller's assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 3-to-1.

Miller repeatedly dribbled through Kentucky's fabled pressure defense last week, and burned the smaller Wildcats by getting the ball inside to Key and McIlvaine.

Although Duke matches up better down low with Marquette, Miller and O'Neill did not attempt to hide their strategy when sizing up the Blue Devils.

"Our strength is going to the big guys," Miller said.

"I think whoever establishes an early advantage in the paint has a good chance to win the game," O'Neill said.

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