SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—When Washington’s Quincy Pondexter and Marquette’s Lazar Hayward look back on their teams’ rocky seasons, both seniors can circle the same date when everything turned toward the NCAA tournament.
On Jan. 23, the Huskies and the Golden Eagles were both mired in losing streaks near the bottom of their conference standings. Although not much was expected of Marquette this season after losing three key players from last season’s second-round NCAA team, Washington had failed to live up to high expectations of a Pac-10 title run.
Yet in both Milwaukee and Seattle, everything changed after that fateful date. Both teams raised their efforts, finally started to win close games, and gathered momentum toward big conference tournament finishes.
Jan. 23 is when the Golden Eagles (22-11) started growing out their hair, and it’s also when the Huskies (24-9) finally started to get their heads together.
“Two months later, here we are,” Pondexter said.
They’ll meet Thursday in San Jose, with the winner adding another surprising achievement to seasons that were all but dead in late January.
Marquette earned the sixth seed in the East Regional after a tremendous finish, including an 11-3 record down the stretch with two Big East tournament victories.
The Eagles’ loss at Syracuse on Jan. 23 got them off to a 2-5 start in the league, but with a solidarity marked by the players’ decision to stop getting haircuts, this unorthodox, 3-point-happy club got it together.
“We had people getting hurt, people leaving,” Hayward said. “Those guys did a very good job of keeping focused, never losing faith and always working hard.”
Although the Eagles allowed themselves to start getting haircuts again last month, they showed up at the Shark Tank with new hairdos featuring lines, patterns and their uniform numbers carved into their scalps. It’s quite a bold fashion statement for a team with a coach named Buzz—although Buzz Williams took it in good humor.
“They’re silly,” Williams said. “They’re kids. They’re having fun. Last year, they all cut it off … so now they have 19 designs in their head along with their number, so it only makes sense.”
Across the country, 11th-seeded Washington finished on a 12-2 run after a loss at Southern California on Jan. 23 left the Huskies at 3-5 in the Pac-10 standings. Washington had a mid-teens national ranking before that conference skid, but even a strong finish didn’t ensure the Huskies of an NCAA spot.
They made the field by roaring through the Pac-10 tournament last weekend, beating California in a thriller of a title game in Los Angeles.
“We just hope we can feed off that momentum,” said Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas, who will play with a thin glove on what doctors believe is a broken bone in his shooting hand. “Everybody else is beat up, just like us. We’ve still got to perform.”
For two schools that haven’t met since 1978, the symmetry between Marquette and Washington is remarkable, even on the court. Both play without a true center, and both are led by veteran senior forwards who have embraced leadership roles with quiet authority.
“We mirror them in some respects,” said coach Lorenzo Romar, who has Washington in the NCAAs for the fifth time in eight seasons. “We’re not a very tall team either. Their leading scorer is a senior that is a multitalented guy. The one difference is they shoot the 3-ball a lot better than we do.”
When Williams is asked for a scouting report on Washington, he rolls out a list of statistics and comparisons that should scare his hometown fan base.
“They drive it like Villanova,” Williams said. “They play fast like Syracuse. They offensive-rebound the ball like West Virginia, and they play with great energy and great pace like St. John’s.”
Romar has no similar comparisons, but has peppered his team with advice on defending the Eagles, who led the Big East with 8.3 3-pointers per game while ranking sixth in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage.
“We’ve not played anyone that can put five guys on the floor that can knock down 3’s consistently,” Romar said. “People ask, ‘Who can you compare them to?’ No one. We’ve not played a team like this. They’re an undersized team, but the things they do allow them to compensate for a lack of superior size. They’re gritty, and they’re going to be a tough, tough opponent.”