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Hard-playing Marquette 3.0 could be ticket to NCAA success in March

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The echoes of the final horn had barely stopped reverberating through the court-level concourse when the aging XL Center registered its opinion of last Saturday's proceedings. A pipe broke above the walkway and sent water cascading down onto the ground below, diverting traffic on the way back to the locker rooms and providing significant symbolism for both the game's winner and loser.

In each of the past two seasons, imagery of pressure-induced leakage would have been the perfect visual for Marquette, a team that straddled the NCAA cutline so consistently that its hit-or-miss, at-large status developed into a longstanding meme for its stress-hardened fan base. In the wake of a comprehensive takedown of the defending national champs on their turf, though, it's Connecticut that is rapidly taking on water and Marquette that's drinking in the crisp, clean taste of high-level success.

"This year, we have a little cushion. I think we're playing freely, we're playing within ourselves, we're not forcing anything, and I think it shows on the court," said senior Jae Crowder, who had 29 points and 12 rebounds against UConn. "[But it's] still the same focus, if not more right now, because we know we're so close to doing some special stuff within the program."

Hints of big things in Milwaukee came as early as last March, when after the Golden Eagles punched their way into the NCAAs, they decided to stick around for a bit, KO'ing league rival Syracuse on the way to a Sweet 16 appearance. With the bulk of the talent from that team back this season, intentions were made early when Marquette strutted into Madison came out with a victory.

Of course, it couldn't be that easy. That wouldn't be the Marquette way. Two minutes into its next game, Marquette lost center Chris Otule to an ACL injury. The adjustment period to a team relying more heavily on sizable sophomore Davante Gardner was a bit bumpy. There was a loss at LSU, a home wipeout at the hands of Vanderbilt, a huge blown lead at Georgetown, and a daring rally that fell shy at Syracuse. It felt, in short, like just another Marquette season. Every game was an adventure.

Hitting a softer patch of the schedule at home helped stabilize things and Marquette won six in a row. And then -- cue standard Marquette drama -- Gardner went down with a knee injury, more or less leaving the Golden Eagles without a legitimate post player and forcing coach Buzz Williams to overhaul his approach for a second time. All of the transitions have been aided by the Golden Eagles' morph from last season's extremely young team into a more veteran group.

"I do think that the experience of our guys, the maturity of our guys, is the only reason we've been able to withstand that we're coaching three different teams," Williams said after Saturday's game. "... Within each of those teams we've had to coach, we've had to make adjustments. So now all the habits we formed in September, October, November, December, some of those don't hold true in January, February, March."

The modus operandi for Golden Eagles 3.0 is to use their lack of size as a trigger to push tempo. Marquette has been over 70 possessions in three of the five games without Gardner and even dragged stubborn Notre Dame into a relative track meet by Irish standards (albeit while getting crushed by incredible Irish three-point shooting). After two games of so-so smallball offense, the Golden Eagles have ripped their last three foes, putting a searing 1.20 points per possession or more on each of them, and Williams has seen enough to buy in. He isn't going to mess with the latest incarnation, one that has provided a broader creative platform for multifaceted talents like Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom.

"This third team's been playing pretty well and no matter what, I'm going to protect that rhythm and we're not going to disrupt it, regardless of Davante's health," Williams said. "He continues to improve, but at what point will he play? I don't know. And at what point will we play him? I don't know. This group, we're not going to change their rhythm."

It will be interesting to see how this approach evolves as opponents get more film to examine it, but as Missouri and others have shown for most of this season, you can win big this way. Marquette also has the relative luxury, without an NCAA bid hanging on every outcome, to tweak things over the last four regular-season games and into the postseason.

There likely will be a point where Gardner's size is required, so his ongoing rehab is a key, but that's a concern for another day, perhaps one toward the end of March the way this team is playing. It's a whole new world for Marquette hoops, one filled with legitimate expectations, but despite all the winning and all of the changes this season, it's a world that remains rooted in the overarching philosophy Williams has installed since his arrival.

"Last year was different than this year, obviously, because we're doing so much better in conference, but his message is still the same," Johnson-Odom said. "Be the hardest playing team."

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