MILWAUKEE – Marquette had what most would call a surprising season. After being a preseason coaches' pick to finish seventh in the powerful Big East, the Golden Eagles stunned the conference with a 14-4 league record and a share of the regular-season title.
Next up for No. 15 and third-seeded Marquette (23-8) is a matchup Thursday night against No. 14 seed Davidson (26-7) in the East regional of the NCAA tournament in Lexington, Ky.
The Golden Eagles made the NCAAs after navigating a tough Big East and nonconference schedule. Marquette won 14 games in the conference for the second straight year — giving the Golden Eagles a Big East-best 28 wins the last two seasons — and shared the league crown with Louisville and Georgetown before losing to No. 23 Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the league tournament.
"I think sometimes people lose touch with how hard it is to get to the NCAA tournament," coach Buzz Williams said Tuesday. "I am thankful because it is my 10th (NCAA tournament) game as a head coach. We just won the Big East. That has never happened here. We are a 3-seed. I think sometimes you lose touch and you take for granted how hard this really is."
Starting center and redshirt senior Chris Otule enjoyed only his second injury-free season in five years for the Golden Eagles. The availability of Otule allowed Williams to add another dimension to Marquette's offense.
"I feel good. I feel great," Otule said. "I might have a little butterflies, just because I haven't played in the NCAA tournament in a while. Last year, I was hurt and everything."
Otule averaged 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds, starting all 31 games and giving Williams the luxury to utilize junior forward Davante Gardner off the bench after he started 12 games last season.
"We'll all be fine once we get out there," Otule said. "Night in, night out in the Big East any team is capable of beating you on any given night. I think that's just because the competition in the Big East is so great, it allows us to go into the tournament and, hopefully, win some games."
Otule finished the regular season healthy for the first time since his sophomore year and Gardner earned the Big East's sixth man award and was an all-conference honorable mention. Gardner averaged 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in only 23.3 minutes per contest.
This was a key factor in the historic conference finish for Marquette.
Gardner is a tough cover in the paint, but foul trouble and conditioning slowed his progress his first two seasons.
Vander Blue leads the team with 14.3 points per game and was named to the all-Big East second team. Against St. John's in Marquette's final game of the regular season, Blue hit the winning layup in overtime to secure the Golden Eagles their share of the conference championship.
It will mark the eighth consecutive trip to the NCAAs for Marquette, and the second straight for the Southern Conference-champion Wildcats. Each game could become the last for Marquette seniors Junior Cadougan and transfer Trent Lockett.
Juan Anderson, a sophomore forward, looks to the leadership of point guard Cadougan.
"He is a great leader," Anderson said. "He is really positive, he just takes on each task in everyday like it his last. He is really humble about everything."
The Wildcats, who won their second consecutive Southern tournament, lost to Louisville in the second round of last season's tournament.
Williams knows Davidson is no pushover.
"We are playing a team that is tournament tested," he said.
Jake Cohen, a senior forward, leads the Wildcats in scoring at 14.8 points per game and adds 5.5 rebounds. De'Mon Brooks, a junior forward, averages 13.8 points and a team-best 6.2 rebounds.
"They are not a 14-seed," Williams said. "I am not smart enough to be on the selection committee, but they are not a 14-seed."
The two schools have met on two previous occasions. The Wildcats posted a 73-65 win at home on Dec. 9, 1965, and Marquette followed with a 66-65 victory in Milwaukee on Feb. 11, 1967.