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Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

This Marquette squad would make Al McGuire proud

March 30, 2003

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— Make room, Al McGuire. Move over, Butch Lee, Bo Ellis and friends. Marquette basketball is back where you left it three decades ago.

It arrived Saturday strictly on merit, dominating everyone's favorite for the national championship. The Golden Eagles are going to the Final Four and Kentucky isn't because they're simply better. Bigger, stronger, deadlier and just as quick. Who knew?

This group grew before your very eyes. If you said even a week ago that Marquette would not only beat America's top-ranked team, but embarrass it, you were begging for a blood test. Now you're begging for a seat at the Superdome.

No, the Eagles haven't won it all, but for the first time since the '70s they've returned to that incredibly exclusive club of programs that can. There will be no more upsets for these guys.

They established their national credentials in three days at Pittsburgh and Kentucky's expense. More important, they've convinced the people at home that they belong on the same page with the best in Marquette's storied past.

When it was over Saturday, the fans were chanting "One more year!" at Dwyane Wade, and only Wade knows if they'll get it. His last three halves may turn out to be one of the more impressive salary drives in college basketball history. For now they serve as 60 of the most cherished minutes in Marquette lore.

Lee, Ellis, Meminger and Lucas never looked better than the All-America junior did while Kentucky was chasing him with everything but the state's thoroughbred herd. "We knew we had our hands full with him," said Keith Bogans, the Wildcats' star guard.

Their hands, their feet and mostly their heads. Wade imposed his will on the opponents, just as surely as Robert Jackson imposed his body on them. Marquette's center turned the bulky Wildcats' best weapon back on them, getting 24 points and 15 rebounds, while limiting Marquis Estill to 10 of the one and six of the other.

By controlling the lane, he forced Kentucky outside, where it is ordinary, and he formally introduced himself to his opposite number. Earlier in the week, Estill said he had no memory of Jackson when he was a conference rival at Mississippi State. "I'm quite sure he knows me now," said Jackson.

Estill and most of the folks at home. These players can never be strangers again. Not to the thousands who crossed the state line to watch them, nor to the tens of thousands who didn't but years from now will claim they did.

They'll say they saw Steve Novak bury five threes, and Travis Diener shred the vaunted Kentucky press, and Tom Crean clear the bench with almost 2 minutes to play. He cleared the bench. Against Kentucky. In the regional final.

Not even the '77 team that won the championship could risk that, or the '74 club that played for it. This one actually had a better regular-season record than either of those, but there's no question which of the three came as the biggest surprise.

"We never got caught up in what people thought we could or couldn't do," said Crean. "I know it sounds kind of boring, but that's our team. That's the way we are."

The way they are is playing just fine in Wisconsin. Not better than ever, but just as good. There's no telling how long it will stay, but right now it's fair to say Marquette basketball is back.

"Yeah, I think so," said Diener. "It's been so long since 1977. All those fans in the stands, especially the older people, I know some of them were in tears. This is the joy we can bring them.

"It's just an honor to put on this uniform and play for this team."

There are dozens of former players who know the feeling. And it just got easier to remember them.

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