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Marquette carries improbable run into Sweet 16


CLEVELAND -- Buzz Williams had just wrapped another long and scattered press conference in which he talked about everything from McDonald's to his first house and tempo-free statistics, and now the Marquette coach was walking through the halls of Quicken Loans Arena, a winner for the second time in three days, fumbling with a paper bracket pulled from his pocket.

"So at each regional site now there are four teams?" Williams asked, and I looked at him like he was joking. "So that means there are four regional sites? And four teams at each?"

My answer: "You know how a bracket works, don't you?"

"I've never advanced this far," Williams said with a smile. "I just wanna confirm."

Consider it confirmed.

East Regional
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Also confirmed: Marquette will be part of it.

"When guys come out and play just as tough as ever and put it all on the line, you're supposed to be in positions like this," said Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom, whose 3-pointer with 26 seconds remaining broke a tie and pushed the Golden Eagles to a 66-62 win over Syracuse. "The Sweet 16 is for us."

The Big East got 11 schools into the NCAA tournament and nine of them have been eliminated over the past four days. (Perhaps you heard.) So now the nation's biggest and baddest league is taking a beating from coast to coast, and though much of it is deserving, some of it is silly.

There are two sides to this, after all.

On one hand you can argue it's embarrassing that the Big East's top eight teams were eliminated before the second weekend, and I can't argue against that fact. But what's also true is that the schools that finished ninth and 11th in the league advanced to the second weekend, meaning two teams that couldn't do better than 18-18 in the Big East are now in the Sweet 16.

And one of them is Marquette.

Yes, 14-loss Marquette.

The same Marquette team that spent February and March on the bubble. The same Marquette team that dropped consecutive games four different times this season. The same Marquette team that was led Sunday by three former junior college players -- specifically Hutchinson Community College's Johnson-Odom (17 points), Howard Community College's Jae Crowder (16 points) and Tyler Junior College's Jimmy Butler (10 points). In this era of college basketball, that last thing isn't supposed to happen. And yet it happened. And when it did, Williams took a moment to celebrate with his family courtside before exiting the floor while yelling to no one in particular, "How about that! How about that!"

"It's four junior college guys up here -- D.J., Jae, Jimmy and Buzz," Williams said as he sat on the stage for the formal postgame press conference while noting the first time he ever stepped on a Division I campus was the day he was hired to work on one. "We were trying to figure out if we could eat at McDonald's or Burger King [back then]. We weren't sure what Sweet 16 meant other than that it was our 16th birthday."

Williams later talked about the sacrifices his family has made to reach this point.

He teared up a little, too.

But before long Williams was back to being the funny and engaging character folks laughed with and at all weekend, and he started looking ahead to next weekend's East Regional semifinals where he and his junior college standouts will play North Carolina and all its McDonald's Americans for the right to play either Ohio State and all its McDonald's All-Americans or Kentucky and all its McDonald's All-Americans. North Carolina, Ohio State and Kentucky combined to lose just 17 times this season. Marquette, again, has 14 losses. So the 11th-seeeded Golden Eagles shouldn't advance again, at least on paper. But don't try telling them that at this point because they've got a coach who never figured to be a Big East coach and a roster full of players who never projected as impact players at the Division I level. In other words, they never should've made it this far. But they did. So why not go a little further?

That was the message from the Marquette locker room after the Big East's 11th-place team eliminated the Big East's fourth-place team before a crowd of mostly Ohio State fans left over from the Buckeyes' earlier thrashing of George Mason. And if you're worried about Williams or his players losing perspective with this unexpected success, don't. As they were trying to leave the arena late Sunday to get back home early Monday, they were, as chance would have it, suddenly reminded of their modest roots.

"They can't get the bus to start," a school official told Williams. "We're straight juco right now."

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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