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Marquette Golden Eagles head to Dallas for Sweet 16

This will be Marquette’s 36th NCAA tournament, including 1 national championship in 1977

Marquette fans wave goodbye to the men’s basketball team as they head to compete in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. Margaret Faust/WPR

Marquette University’s men’s basketball team will compete in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the 17th time in program history — and for the first time since 2013.

The second-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles will face off against the 11th-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack in Dallas on March 29.

This will be Marquette’s 36th NCAA tournament appearance, including seven Elite Eights, three Final Fours and one national championship in 1977.

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Head coach Shaka Smart said he’s excited about the challenge.

“At this time of year, everybody’s a hunter. Because in the (NCAA) tournament, as we say, it’s kill or be killed,” Smart said.

The matchup

Marquette and NC State have played against each other five times, including in the 1974 national championship game, where the Golden Eagles fell to the Wolfpack.  

Smart said NC State is “a heck of a team” whose spirit and connectivity this year is at an all-time high.

Marquette has been strategizing how to defend against NC State forward DJ Burns. Smart said Burns, who is 6 feet 9 inches and 275 pounds, is a unique player because of his strength and skill.

“This guy’s got to be as entertaining and as tough of a match-up as there is in college basketball,” Smart said.

Al McGuire celebrates after his team won the NCAA Championship game against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of Marquette University

Marquette’s Chase Ross is a Dallas native. He’ll be playing 20 minutes away from home on Friday and is expecting around 40 friends and family in the stands.

He told reporters the team has experience playing against athletes like Burns.

“It’s nothing we can’t handle as a defensive task,” Ross, a sophomore, said. “I think we’ll be fine.”

Smart said another player to watch is NC State guard DJ Horne. He said he’ll rely on as many players as possible to defend against Horne including Ross and his fellow guards Stevie Mitchell and Zaide Lowery.

In terms of rank, NC State is the underdog. Smart and his team said they realize the crowd might be rooting against them, but they won’t let that be a distraction.

“We’re the gladiators and they’re the crowd so we can’t let the crowd affect what we’re doing,” Ross said. “We just have to stay in a close-knit, tight circle and just tell each other what we need from each other.”

Marquette earned a spot in the Sweet 16 by beating the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the first round of the tournament, erasing a seven-point halftime deficit.  In the second round the team beat the Colorado Buffaloes by four points on March 24.

Proud fans waved goodbye to the team Wednesday

Fans sent the team off to Dallas on Wednesday. Faculty, staff, students, families and alumni waved blue and gold pom poms and cheered on the players as they boarded a bus.

Among the crowd was dental student Zoya Shams. She also went to Marquette for her undergraduate degree. In her eight years as a student, the men’s team hasn’t made it this far. She said she’s excited to watch them play.

“They got this. They know what they’re doing. They have that team chemistry. They have an amazing coach. We’re not worried,” Shams said.

Marquette students march down Wisconsin Avenue after men’s basketball win in the NCAA championship, March 28, 1977. Photo courtesy of Marquette University

Kaitlin Gleason and Bernadette Heitschmidt, 2016 graduates, said this experience is nostalgic. In their first year of school, the team made it to the Elite Eight. Gleason said she feels like a bigger fan now than when she was a student.

“We’re just excited. They’re a really fun team to watch. They have a great dynamic so it’s fun cheering them on,” Gleason said.

What’s next?

The winner of Friday’s matchup will compete again in Dallas as part of the Elite Eight on Sunday.

Smart said the key to success is focusing on his own team, not the opponent.

“When our guys really double down on their relationships with each other and they help each other, it gives us our best chance,” he said.

Marquette forward Ben Gold said even though the team has made it this far, there’s still pressure to succeed.

 “We want to go as far as we can. We want to play in Phoenix,” Gold said. “We want to be the last ones standing.”