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Time to take Marquette seriously as a Final Four contender

Feb 18, 2012, 2:41 PM EDT

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Last Saturday, UConn lost at Syracuse by 18 points, but it wasn’t an 18 point loss. The Huskies were able to stay within striking distance for most of the game, getting as close as one possession multiple times in the second half, before a big Syracuse run closed out the contest.

UConn’s 79-64 loss to No. 12 Marquette at the XL Center in Hartford on Saturday afternoon was as dominating as it looks on paper. Marquette jumped out to a 43-29 lead in the first half, never allowing the Huskies to get closer than four points the rest of the way.

The one thing those two games had in common?

Both Marquette and Syracuse looked like teams capable of making the Final Four. We all know about the Orange. Its kind of hard to sneak up on people when you are sitting at No. 2 in the country, but Marquette is still a bit of a secret. Well, was a bit of a secret, because after this performance on in a game televised on ESPN, the Golden Eagles are going to be a trendy pick to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

And rightfully so.

There really is not a weakness on this team, which is a testament to the versatility of Buzz Williams’ roster. You see, Marquette is currently playing without the benefit of a big man. Chris Otule is out for the season with a knee injury. Davante Gardner has already been out for a couple weeks and may miss more time. As evidenced on Saturday, the Golden Eagles can hold their own on the block and on the glass against teams with more size and athleticism than them.

Jae Crowder, who may be the nation’s most complete player, matched up with Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi all afternoon, coming down with 12 rebounds and helping to hold them to a combined 17 points and seven boards. On the offensive end of the floor, Crowder showcased just how much of a matchup nightmare he truly is. He went for 29 points, going 8-14 from the floor and 4-7 from three while knocking down 9-10 from the charity stripe. He played a large role in fouling out Drummond.

But Marquette is more than just Crowder, whose back story is as intriguing as his performance this season. Darius Johnson-Odom might be the best wing in the Big East this season, capable going for 24 points on any given night — as he did against UConn — and with a reputation for hitting some big shots. Junior Cadougan is a leader and distributor at the point guard spot. Todd Mayo and Vander Blue provide some athleticism and playmaking on the perimeter, while Jamil Wilson has more than held his own playing as an undersized big man in the absence of Gardner and Otule.

Marquette is also as well-coached as any team in the country. They buy into their coach’s vision and they execute it to perfection. With the smaller lineup, Williams wants his guys to pressure in the back court and to run the floor to offense on makes and misses. Given Marquette’s personnel, its a difficult style for opponents to matchup with.

Difficult enough that Marquette is going to warrant plenty of hype over the final weeks of the season.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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