BOISE, Idaho — Marquette junior point guard Maurice Acker couldn't help but feel as though the team's late-season skid was his fault.
He was, after all, the guy who had been promoted from a sparingly used backup when senior Dominic James broke his left foot in the opening minutes against Connecticut on Feb. 25, the start of a four-game skid.
"It was very stressful," he said Saturday. "I put a lot on myself. This is pretty much my team; I'm the starting point guard."
But rather than buckle under the weight of expectation or offer excuses, like the fact that the four losses were to Top 25 teams, he buckled down. He watched more film. He launched more shots at practice. He spent more time in the weight room. He took everything more seriously.
It's paying dividends.
Acker helped orchestrate a comeback in the waning minutes against Utah State in a first-round game on Friday to send the No. 6 seed Golden Eagles (25-9) into today's game against No. 3 seed Missouri (29-6). The winner advances to the West Region round of 16 at Glendale, Ariz.
The Tigers press and trap and push a frenetic pace, so if the opposing point guard isn't steady and smart with the ball, it can make for a long game.
That would be a challenge for Marquette even if it had James, a dynamic athlete who had started 127 games. The 5-8, 165-pound Acker will be starting for just the seventh time. He had played a total of 42 minutes in the seven games before James' injury, including six in Marquette's upset loss at USF on Feb. 6.
"I think Mo's been accountable in every sort of way, every day, since 'Nique has been hurt," coach Buzz Williams said. "And I think as he's responded better, it's allowed our team to respond better."
Acker's had lots of support.
"I'm living through Maurice," James said. "When he's out on the floor, I'm out there with him. Anything that I can do to contribute to his progression, it's going to help our team. And he's the type of person who's not afraid to ask for help or ask what I see out there. A lot of people would look at this (situation) as pressure, but the best thing about Maurice is he's looking at it as an opportunity. He's a very competitive person. If you tell him he can't do something, he's going to do whatever it takes to prove you wrong."
Said Acker: "It's been tough, but at the same time I'm thankful to be in this position, stepping into the shoes of Dominic James. I've just got to get better each game."