Off course, Marquette looking for direction


This has been a roller-coaster season for all of last year's Final Four teams.

Despite some bumps along the ride, Texas and Kansas seem to be comfortably headed toward another NCAA tournament appearance. But the other two teams - defending national champion Syracuse and Marquette - still could be on the verge of going from the bubble to real trouble. Especially Marquette.

After appearing to be in decent shape following a win two weeks ago at Louisville, Marquette (13-7 overall and 4-5 in Conference USA) is looking at nearly a must-win situation tomorrow against Memphis following back-to-back losses to Texas Christian and DePaul.

"It's a fine line between staying in the moment, and getting ready for each practice and each game, but also getting a sense of urgency about how important all those games are," Marquette coach Tom Crean said earlier this week in Milwaukee.

Crean admitted he has yet to find a regular rotation, let alone anyone to replace All-American Dwyane Wade and unsung hero Robert Jackson from last year. While junior guard Travis Diener has taken his game to another level and senior forward Scott Merritt has been solid, others have been inconsistent.

"Obviously, we lost two great players," said Merritt, whose numbers (12.6 points, 6.7 rebounds) are a personal improvement from last season but not as good as Jackson's numbers were. "A couple of players have to step up."

Said Diener, whose scoring average is up nearly six points to 17.5 a game, "We're a very young team. It takes awhile for a team to find itself. That's no excuse for the losses we've had lately. We're still trying to define what everyone needs to do."

Sophomore center Steve Novak is having the toughest time finding that consistency. After coming off the bench as a freshman, Novak has played spectacularly at times (including a career-high 30 against Louisville) but has not given Marquette any inside presence, particularly at the defensive end.

"You're asking kids to do things they haven't been asked to do before," said Memphis coach John Calipari. "They become a little uncomfortable. Plus the league is tough. People are getting better. And they've got a banner on their backs that says 'Final Four team.' They don't get anybody's second-best."

Diener said he doesn't think the school's first Final Four appearance since winning the NCAA championship under the late Al McGuire in 1977 has brought undue expectations. The team is averaging more than 16,000 a game at the new McGuire Center, but fans have, for the most part, been patient.

"I don't think it's so much from the fans and the media. We have high expectations for ourselves," said Diener. "Our expectations are a lot higher than anyone else would probably imagine. Right now we're not fulfilling those expectations, but it's still early in February, so we've got some time left."

Part of the problem this season for the Golden Eagles is stronger competition within the league. Fourth in the country in league power rating, Conference USA is ahead of such perennial powers as the Pac-10 and Big Ten, and should get as many as five teams in the NCAA tournament this season.

"I don't know what five it will be, but I think there should be and would be five," said Crean. "There's some really good basketball. Where we sit in the standings right now certainly isn't where we want to be. We just got to find ways to get better."

Close calls

While Kentucky fans always seem to find fault in Wildcats coach Tubby Smith, regardless of his team's success, there's one area in which the biggest nit-pickers in the country can't do any second-guessing: winning close games.

Kentucky is 7-0 in games decided by five points or less.

"There's no magical wand," Smith told reporters in Lexington this week. "There's nothing I can say [or] spring on them."

On the spot

Just when you thought the situation couldn't become much bleaker at St. John's, here comes news that the school president is thinking about suspending or even shutting down the storied program for good.

Rev. Donald Harrington told the editorial board of the New York Daily News on Wednesday that such dire action could be taken if things don't improve on and off the court.

"I would go to the board [of trustees] and say, 'It's now my conviction we can't do it [play basketball],'" said Harrington.

A month ago, Mike Jarvis became the first Big East coach to be fired in midseason after the team got off to a horrendous start. Last week, six players were thrown off the team after a sexual incident with a woman at a Pittsburgh hotel.

The Lexington Herald-Leader and the New York Daily News contributed to this article.

Planting seeds

Each Friday through the regular season, The Sun predicts the top four seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament.

East ............................. Midwest

1. Duke ........................ 1. St. Joseph's

2. Florida ..................... 2. Kentucky

3. Pittsburgh ............... 3. Okla. State

4. Texas Tech .............. 4. N. Carolina

South .......................... West

1. Miss. State .............. 1. Stanford

2. Louisville ................. 2. Connecticut

3. Texas ....................... 3. Gonzaga

4. Ga. Tech .................. 4. Kansas

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