The clock read 0:00, and as much as Buzz Williams yelled, kicked, screamed, and fought it, Maurice Acker wasn’t going to get four free throws. In a two minute span that seemed more like 20 minutes, Marquette went from being up four to down four as they fell to the Missouri Tigers 83-79 in Boise.
The game brought an end to much more than a second round game in the NCAA Tournament, but rather an era at Marquette University and the Golden Eagles program that will not be forgotten for some time.
I’ve only had the privilege of being a Marquette Golden Eagles fan for about a calendar year, but the joy and fantastic memories they have brought to me as a sports fan is insurmountable.
The Golden Eagles’ season started in a conference room in Bloomington, Ind. on April 3 where Tom Crean had just accepted the job as Indiana’s next head basketball coach. Say what you will—that the move was warranted or that he left his seniors out to dry—no matter how you look at it, his leaving hit the Marquette community where it hurt.
Fast forward one week to Apr. 8 and Buzz Williams had taken over the reigns and agreed to become Marquette’s sixteenth head coach in the school’s history.
Fast forward another week and recruit Nick Williams opts out of his commitment to Marquette, and a week after that Tyshawn Taylor had committed to Kansas after originally planning to go to Marquette. In between all this, Scott Cristopherson transferred to Iowa State, leaving the Golden Eagles another man down. All before May!
Buzz Williams and his staff had the opportunity to let this season slip away and start fresh in a year, but with a perfect attitude for winning, Buzz buckled down and assured the team that this year was their year and to make the most of it, literally day-by-day.
Highlighted by three seniors in Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, and Dominic James, the season kicked off with a 95-64 clobbering of Houston Baptist. Marquette struggled to find its identity in losses to Dayton and Tennessee, and entering Big East play, the team was unsure if their undersized roster could get the job done. What they showed over the next two months was that heart is truly measured in intangibles, not inches.
All it took was a pre-game pep talk from Buzz Williams to get his seniors fired up. He let them know they had never started 2-0 in Big East play, and wins over Villanova and Cincinnati followed.
Seven games later, I wonder if Buzz let them know they had never started 9-0 either.
The doubters were there all year, especially after wins versus Georgetown and Notre Dame that don’t look as big anymore. The losses to South Florida and Villanova brought critics in packs, saying that the Golden Eagles just weren’t in that elite “Big Four” in the Big East. As the end of the year rolled around and “the gauntlet” approached, Marquette fans were feeling good that they could take at least the bookends of the five game stretch, Georgetown and Syracuse, and maybe steal one in between.
Well, one broken fifth metatarsal later, the Golden Eagles were looking at a team without its star point guard and without any direction. The gauntlet came and went and, as expected, they struggled mightily without their team leader.
Anyone who doubted the importance of James on the court was suddenly silent, and everyone wondered what was next on the roller coaster.
In the Big East Tournament, a dominating win over St. John’s showed the Big East what this team was capable of, especially on defense, and despite the heart-breaking loss to Villanova, there was a sense of togetherness back on the court that had not been seen since the injury to James.
The roller coaster of a season continued as Marquette drew a No. 6 seed in the tournament versus a little known, 30-win team from Utah State. Lazar Hayward provided us with a little preview of next year as he went off for 26 points and 8 rebounds, while the team’s poise and patience really showed in the last four minutes of the game. Down six, Marquette furiously rallied back with McNeal and Matthews and took the game from the free throw line, connecting on their last 10 from the stripe. A second round match up against Missouri ensued, and while the outcome wasn’t what Marquette fans had hoped for, the ending brought good enough closure for most of us.
The unfortunate loss closed the book on a Marquette team that faced more ups-and-downs than any other team in the nation, and a team that handled it better than any other team in the nation would have.
McNeal went out the way we all wanted him to, matching a career high in points and carrying the team on his shoulders the whole game. Matthews put in 24 points, highlighted by two emphatic dunks that all too well described his nature on the court: ferocity and never-ending competitiveness. James, in an unbelievable return, sparked the team and gave every Marquette fan watching the game chills all over as he subbed in.
I don’t care how many touches he had in the game CBS. I care about the way he carried himself, healed his injury four times faster than expected, and the way he ended his career: bald-headed, wearing No. 1 on the court with his senior brothers. Burke quietly pulled down 10 boards in his last game as a Golden Eagle, seemingly fitting for a guy that has never received the praise he deserved. Just remember who this guy had to go up against over the last four years as the “big man” on the team. We might remember Burke for the times we yelled at him for not holding on to the gosh darn ball, but as a whole he always did what was asked of him.
As I said, I didn’t get to watch these seniors for more than a year, but the mark they left in my heart will be there forever. We will remember these seniors as graduates who kept Marquette’s spot on the map and who didn’t back down in the face of any adversity that came their way. The man who recruited them and had stood by their side for three years was suddenly gone and some guy who had coached New Orleans to a 13-14 record at one point, was taking over. You can bet the NBA looked pretty sweet at that moment for the Big 3.
But the seniors made a pact, whether they knew it or not, to come back and make the 2008 Marquette season one to remember, and boy did they ever.
It doesn’t matter that they only made it past one round in the NCAA Tournament or that they “under-achieved” in some people’s eyes. No one will remember that. What they will remember is Matthews’ unforgettable smile and breakout senior season, James’ ultimate leadership and shutdown defense, McNeal’s record-breaking performances and clutch shooting, and Burke ’s dirty work.
Their legacy will live on as one of the best senior classes to come out of Marquette, but don’t think that their work on the court is done. McNeal, Matthews, and James all have a chance to wind up playing at the next level, and you can bet you’ll get much of the same talent, tenacity, and will to win out of these guys, no matter where they end up.
As for the rest of the Golden Eagles, they have a very tough act to follow. Hayward will lead the troops into battle next year in his senior season and should do a fine job. He played beyond anyone’s expectations this year, and for anyone upset about the line violation at the end of the Missouri game, remember the reason that we moved on and played in that game. Hayward’s 26 points and 8 rebounds paced us against Utah State, and he also kept us in the game in the first half against Missouri. Like he has been all year, he was also given the difficult task of guarding the combination of Leo Lyons and Demarre Carroll, both with size advantages on him. Just as it had been for Burke, Hayward didn’t get the credit he deserved on a guard-oriented Marquette team, but continued to produce regardless of the lack of accolades.
Jimmy Butler will continue to get better, just as he did the second half of the year and will be able to contribute at three spots if he works on his jump shot. Maurice Acker also gained valuable experience when he replaced James in the starting lineup and will use that next year to mentor recruit Junior Cadougan. Jeronne Maymon is the leader of Marquette’s 2009 recruiting class and is a special talent out of high school that Marquette has not seen in a while. Fresh off a state championship, Mr. Basketball from Wisconsin will come in right away for the Warriors.
Don’t get me wrong. Losing the school’s all-time leading scorer along with three other seniors is going to hurt Marquette next year, but if this year’s up-and-down season has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. For now, the four seniors pass the torch to next year’s team and beyond. They have set the bar high, on and off the court, and have forever changed the Marquette basketball program.
On that note, I close the book on this year’s Marquette team and will begin my focus to the NFL Draft and the start of the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers’ season. But before I do, I just want to say thank you one more time to the Marquette seniors. You made 4th and State rock like crazy 18 times this year, and we won’t soon forget what you have done for this program, school, and city.
Good luck in the future, you will always be Warriors.