Reaching the 25-win plateau for the seventh time in the last 13 seasons, the Florida Gators seek yet another victory in the West Regional semifinals as they clash with the Marquette Golden Eagles at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Florida, the seventh seed in the region, had some trouble during the month of February and at the beginning of March, but when it counted the most the Gators came up big and are now making their seventh appearance in the round of 16 in school history. It marks the sixth time under the direction of head coach Billy Donovan, who directed the squad to national titles in back-to-back seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07).
Despite losing to Kentucky during the SEC Tournament and bowing in four of the last five contests before the tournament field was revealed, Florida earned an at-large berth in the 74th annual event and proceeded to take out Virginia (71-45) and surprising Norfolk State (84-50) without much of a problem.
Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles are into the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in school history. The squad sports a record of 38-30 in the event and won the 1977 National Championship under the guidance of legendary coach Al McGuire. With tonight's contest the team is appearing in back-to-back Sweet 16 contests for the first time since that title year.
Playing in the Big East Conference prepared Marquette well for the roller coaster that is tournament play and after losing to Louisville in the conference tourney, the third-seeded Golden Eagles responded with an 88-68 thrashing of BYU in the second round and then defeated upstart Murray State (62-53) two days later at the KFC Yum! Center in Kentucky.
The Golden Eagles won the previous two meetings between the teams, although the most recent took place almost 35 years ago, with Marquette posting an 81-67 triumph over the Gators.
The team that survives this meeting will be back in action on Saturday against the winner of the Louisville/Michigan State contest for the right to represent the region in the Final Four in New Orleans.
Norfolk State pulled off an improbable win against second-seeded Missouri in the second round by a mere two points, but that in no way prepared the Spartans for what was about to take place against Florida two days later. Kenny Boynton led five Florida players in double digits with 20 points, followed by Erving Walker with 15. Bradley Beal added 14 points, to go along with nine rebounds, while Mike Rosario tacked on 12 points in 19 minutes off the bench. Erik Murphy chipped in 10 points, as the team made good on 10-of-28 behind the three-point line and held the Spartans to just 4-of-24 on the perimeter. Florida has now played a total of eight neutral site games this season, winning all but one of them, and over the course of those contests the team has outscored the competition by a margin of 17.5 ppg, converting 86 three-point baskets against just 36 for the opposition. Beal (17.8 ppg) and Boynton (15.9 ppg) have combined for 46 of those triples themselves, the former also taking care of action in the paint with a team-best 7.3 rpg on neutral floors. Walker (12.1 ppg) has shot only 39.4 percent in such outings, but he has been able to hand out close to five assists per game.
It was destined to be a much different game than the one the Golden Eagles had with BYU in the first game of the tournament, especially since Murray State had some of the local crowd in its favor in Kentucky. In the end Marquette took care of business, as Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom both tallied 17 points, the former also pulling down a team-best 13 rebounds. Defensively, the Golden Eagles slowed down MSU star Isaiah Canaan considerably, allowing him a modest 16 points but holding him to just 4-of-17 shooting from the floor. In fact, the Racers shot just 20-of-64 from the field as a group, 4-of-21 behind the three-point line as well. While it has only been two games, head coach Buzz Williams has to be pleased with the fact that the Golden Eagles have held BYU and MSU to a combined 34.4 percent from the floor and 27.5 percent on the perimeter. Just this season alone Marquette is 14-2 when holding opponents under 40 percent from the field, 41-3 when the team hits that mark with coach Williams at the helm. Crowder, the Big East Conference Player of the Year, is putting up some very strong numbers with 17.6 ppg and 8.4 rpg, while Johnson- Odom checks in with 18.5 ppg, while both have been significant contributors at the defensive end of the floor as well.