O’Neill Guided Marquette To Sweet 16

Marquette Coach Kevin O'Neill talks to guard Tony Miller before facing Duke in the Sweet 16 of the 1994 NCAA Tournament.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles spotlighting NCAA Tournament memories of Pacers players and coaches.

By Chris Speckman | March 24, 2006

During the 1994 NCAA Tournament, the bracket appeared to be stacked against Marquette.

The sixth-seeded Warriors would have to beat both Kentucky and Duke just to reach the Elite Eight. Marquette coach Kevin O’Neill would have to outwit legendary college coaches Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski in back-to-back games.

O’Neill’s team may have been overmatched. But it wasn't overwhelmed.

“They were both great teams with great traditions,” said O’Neill, now the top assistant on Coach Rick Carlisle's staff with the Pacers. “We played exceptionally well against them both.”

In the second round, Marquette topped third-seeded Kentucky 75-63. While the win was certainly important to fans and alumni back in Milwaukee who hadn’t seen the Sweet 16 since 1979, O’Neill convinced his players it was just another game.

“You don’t want to make a big deal out of any one game,” O’Neill said. “I think preparation’s an everyday thing. So what we try to do is prepare for the two or three things that we thought could hurt us if we didn’t execute.”

For O’Neill, preparation eliminated intimidation. The names on the front of the jerseys were irrelevant as long as his team executed the game plan.

“We knew we had to execute against their pressure, which we did," he said. "Defensively, we wanted to make sure that we got back because they were a great running team. Those were our two points of emphasis.”

Even though his stats appeared ordinary, Marquette point guard Tony Miller was the key to the win. He used his superior speed to break through Pitino’s press. Miller finished with eight points and nine assists in his 40 minutes on the floor.

After beating the Wildcats, the Warriors only were 20 minutes away from successfully slaying college basketball’s terrifying twosome when they found themselves ahead of Duke 26-25 at halftime.

“We were ahead at the half,” O’Neill said. “But Grant Hill had a great second half. Still, I was really proud of our effort, what we did. They just had a little too much for us.”

Thanks to 16 second-half points from Hill, the Blue Devils dispatched Marquette 59-49. While he was pleased with his team’s performance, O’Neill wasn’t happy with the result.

“We were disappointed,” O’Neill said. “We thought we could win the national title. Nobody else did.”

The fact that O’Neill had that kind of confidence in his team going into the tournament speaks volumes about Marquette’s sudden turnaround.

Seniors Damon Key, Jim McIlvaine and Robb Logtermann, three crucial components of Marquette’s tournament run, didn’t start their careers competing with teams the caliber of Kentucky and Duke. They began competing against their own fans.

“Our group of seniors that year was my first recruiting class at Marquette,” O’Neill said. “They all came in and went through a very tough 11-18 season where they were booed on their home court on several occasions.”

Consequently, O’Neill considers his 1994 team’s ability to turn jeers into cheers one of his crowning coaching accomplishments.

“By the time they were seniors, they put themselves on a 24-win team and got us to the Sweet 16,” O’Neill said. “So to me, it was particularly rewarding to see it progress for them.”

Monday: Scot Pollard's frustration at falling short of his championship dreams with Kansas.