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Syracuse gets second shot at Marquette SYRACUSE VS. MARQUETTE: Tipoff: 7:30 p.m. Quicken Loans Arena * TV: truTV * Radio: 1520 AM

Marquette's prize for defeating a tough Xavier team is a third-round matchup against a No. 3 seed, albeit a familiar opponent.

The Golden Eagles (21-14), one of the last few teams to make the field of 68, get Syracuse (27-7) for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.

Before this year, Marquette has never been lower than a No. 7 seed so it would be a major upset if the Golden Eagles, who finished 11th in the Big East, were to beat the favored Orange, right? Not necessarily.

Go back to Jan. 29 when Syracuse was near the end of a potentially season-ruining stretch. The Orange lost, 76-70, to the Golden Eagles, marking the end of a four-game losing streak which included setbacks against Pittsburgh, Villanova and Seton Hall. Nearly two months later, the Orange is on the verge of its third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

"I'm just happy we get a second chance at them," junior point guard Scoop Jardine said. "And as everybody knows, it's hard to beat a Big East team twice in a season and hopefully we can come out with a win."

That Marquette still is playing at this stage of the season is surprising to some, considering that the team lost its best player in Buffalo native Lazar Hayward, who was selected in the first round of last June's NBA Draft. As coach Buzz Williams said, "We're thankful to still be here."

Williams is the primary reason. His peers say he is one of the most fundamentally sound coaches in the nation. Marquette, who defeated Xavier, 66-55 on Friday, had only one player -- junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom -- named All-Big East, but Williams is excellent in helping to create shot opportunities for his players. Marquette is 19-3 this season when finishing the game with a field-goal percentage even or better than its opponents.

The story about how Williams started his career is refreshing. He convinced a lady in the financial aid office at Oklahoma City University to loan him $1,200 so he could attend the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte where he spoke to Eddie McCarter about a job at Texas-Arlington. When he returned to Oklahoma City, Williams drove to Arlington, found McCarter's name in the phone book, found out how to get to his house and waited.

When McCarter arrived home and jumped out his car, Williams approached.

"I just wanted to say one more time how much I really want the job," Williams told him.

Said McCarter: "You have to be the craziest son of a [expletive] I've ever seen." McCarter hired Williams three days later.

In only his third season, Williams has established himself as a hot commodity in Division I, whose name has been linked to openings at Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Right now, Williams is consumed with Syracuse. Marquette never trailed in its last meeting against the Orange and led by as many as 11 points. Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler each hit three-pointers late in the game with the shot clock expiring.

"Our defense has been better," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "During the four-game stretch, we really didn't guard anybody. Our defense was really bad. Our offense was bad a little bit -- but there was no defense in that streak."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com