Back among best, Marquette respectful of place

McGuire's magical era inspires Eagles to soar

NCAA Tournament

April 01, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Roughly 45 minutes after scoring a 14-point victory over Kentucky that wasn't that close, Marquette's basketball players eventually made their way up the tunnel at the Metrodome. And it was no surprise that they did so in the jubilant manner of young adults who had just beaten the nation's top-ranked team, ended a 26-game winning streak and given the school its first Final Four appearance in 26 years.

The Golden Eagles wore their Final Four caps, carried their strands of net and were ready-to-party loud. And yet, when Kentucky coach Tubby Smith approached the group in a cart in the tunnel, their power gave way to grace, the rumble lowering to a whisper.

Speaking in general of his team's responsibility as an ambassador for the school, Marquette coach Tom Crean would say, "We say all the time, `Please and thank you will take you a long way.' "

Indeed, the 27-5 Golden Eagles are in a good place, but perhaps it wasn't finishing school that put them there. Try one soon-to-be A-list coach like Crean. Add one superstar shooting guard like Dwyane Wade and a none-too-shabby supporting cast, and you've got yourself a ride this weekend to New Orleans, where Marquette finds itself two games away from its first national title since 1977.

Back in that time, the Milwaukee school nicknamed its teams Warriors. In basketball, the uniforms featured jerseys that didn't tuck into shorts, and the coach was the late Al McGuire, whose name will adorn the new on-campus arena the school will open in the middle of next season. Those teams perennially finished in the Top 10 in the polls, making a Final Four in 1974 to go along the title three years later, and players such as Maurice Lucas, Bo Ellis and Doc Rivers coursed through the program.

In contrast, the Golden Eagles nickname is a bland nod to sensitivity. The uniforms are a navy and gold version of what Duke wears, and in terms of colorfulness, Crean is Ben Stein compared with McGuire, who passed away in 2001.

At this moment, Marquette's program seems poised to be every bit as vital as it ever was, setting the school's single-season record for wins, led by players like Wade, who was named the Midwest Regional's Most Outstanding Player after an electrifying performance of 29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and four blocks in the 83-69 upset of Kentucky. Three others - center Robert Jackson, point guard Travis Diener and power forward Scott Merritt - also average double figures in scoring for the season to lure fans to Bradley Center again.

"It has to be back - it's been so long since 1977," said Diener, who had 15 assists in the two Regional games against the Wildcats and Pittsburgh. "You see all the fans, the alumni in the stands. It's just enjoyable to bring it back - to put on that uniform for this program."

Much of the credit goes to Crean, 36, brother-in-law to former Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh. He arrived in Milwaukee in 1999 after four years as Tom Izzo's assistant at Michigan State.

When Marquette showed Mike Deane the door, paving the way for Crean, the program wasn't yet in the doldrums. A respectable 65-28 record preceded the 14-15 mark in Deane's fifth and final season.

Yet Jon Harris, who played for the team in Crean's first three years, said he sensed that there would be a major change.

"One word: Intensity. Ten-fold," said Harris, who now works as a graduate student manager on the team. "He said you have to have a belief in the program. What that meant was that we didn't know what he was like, and he didn't know what the future would bring. But he was going to put his foot forward and put everything he could into it, and we trusted him enough to do that."

What that meant was that while practices would previously go as short as 90 minutes, Crean's sessions tend to run closer to three hours. In Minneapolis, the team's evening didn't end when it outlasted Pittsburgh on Thursday night in the regional semifinals - film study remained at 1 a.m.

"As hard as we've worked, we feel like we should be here," Wade said. "So we're not surprised at all."

Over Crean's first two years, that effort level paid off with a pair of 15-14 records, then 26-7 last season.

But savvy recruiting efforts within an hour from the campus have taken the Golden Eagles into this heretofore unknown stratosphere. Crean's first recruit was Merritt, a formerly miscast center who has benefited from the presence of Jackson, a 6-10 banger and Milwaukee native who played three seasons at Mississippi State before transferring.

Diener and freshman reserve Scott Novak were also Wisconsin natives who were also among the top 100 high school recruits in America.

"I think the level here is growing all the time," Crean said. "Every state is going to have that run when they have players, and I don't see that ending."

Crean's greatest find, of course, was Wade. The Chicago-area native flew under radar until his senior year and, as an NCAA partial-qualifier, found his choices limited to schools like Illinois State.

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