MINNEAPOLIS – When Michigan announced that it was banning itself from the postseason this year, my dreams of attending an NCAA Tournament game came crashing down. I’d be lying if I said the decision surprised me, but it was still a disappointing turn of events for my last year at Michigan.
While wallowing in self-pity, two friends and I decided that instead of waiting for the tournament committee to invite Michigan fans to the Big Dance, we’d just invite ourselves. So we bought tickets for the Midwest regional and waited, knowing our berth was secure.
When the brackets were released, we were less than pleased with our region. I saw the most dominant No. 1-seed in the tournament (Kentucky), with the dullest No. 2 seed (Pittsburgh), the most overrated No. 3 seed (Marquette) and an inexplicable No. 4 seed (Dayton). My hope was that maybe we would get to see No. 6 seed Missouri take down the Wildcats in the regional finals if we were lucky.
But that is why they play the games. Instead of witnessing what I thought would be the most predictable regional, we saw the most compelling story of the tournament so far: The resurgence of Marquette.
My closed-mindedness produced some god-awful brackets (not one of my 23 brackets had Marquette in the Sweet 16), but left me that much more surprised at the Golden Eagles’ performance.
On Thursday, Kentucky was greeted by a stadium full of Wisconsin fans, which only had to make the short four-hour drive to the Metrodome – as compared to the 12-hour trek that Wildcats’ fans faced. The game could not be considered anything but an away game in a hostile environment for Kentucky, but thanks to 28 points by Marquis Estill, the Wildcats narrowly prevailed, 63-57. Not even an injury to the Wildcats’ Keith Bogans was enough to help Wisconsin.
In the next game, the intermission featured comments like, “I’m surprised Marquette made it this far” and “Do you think Bogans will be okay for Pitt on Saturday?” Of course, we spoke too soon.
Marquette came out shooting, knocking down several 3-pointers to keep the game tied at halftime, 34-34. At the break, I turned to my friend and said, “How is Wade so good? I’ve never seen him play well once.” As if on cue, Dwyane Wade happened. It was a rare performance. Every possession he demanded the ball and almost every time he scored. He looked like a different player. He absolutely took over the game to earn the 77-74 victory over the Panthers. He finished the half with 20 of Marquette’s 43 points (after netting just two in the first), but it seemed like more.
On Saturday, we questioned whether the home favorite Golden Eagles could repeat their performance against the Panthers. If they did, they certainly had the crowd behind them. The feared “Blue Mist” of Kentucky was no match for what I’ve dubbed the “Golden Downpour” of Marquette – a sea of yellow across the stadium. I was surprised to see the support for a school with an enrollment of approximately 7,300 students. Upon closer inspection, many of the yellow shirts were actually for the Green Bay Packers or Team Abercrombie, but it’s the thought that counts. The Golden Eagles had won fans against Pittsburgh.
Right away, Wade and Marquette answered any questions. The game was over before it even began, with Wade picking up where he left off against Pittsburgh and with Steve Novak knocking down shots from St. Paul. Kentucky was never in the game after falling behind by 19 at halftime.
In the second half, Wade almost single-handedly stopped any Kentucky run. As soon as the Wildcats would get within 15, Wade would dunk. And dunk again. (I thought the game could’ve been set to the old Dikembe Mutumbo video game commercials: “Dunk on them! Dunk on both of them!” in Dikembe voice.) When he wasn’t dunking he’d find an open teammate or get a needed rebound. We didn’t realize it until the end of the game, but he finished with a very secure triple-double – 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists – for the best tournament performance I can remember.
Marquette represented everything that is amazing about the NCAA Tournament. It has been an unexpected run by an underdog, with back-to-back outstanding games by regional MVP Wade. Against Kentucky, the Golden Eagles were the kind of team that you’d root for even though you knew it would effectively kill your bracket.
It was a wonderful experience and Marquette gave me everything I wanted to see out of the NCAA Tournament, even if I never did get see my team in it.
Jeff Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.