When Marquette takes the floor against Big East rival Syracuse on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET, the Golden Eagles will be chasing their first Final Four appearance since 2003.
And my what a difference one decade makes.
Back then, Marquette was a college basketball outsider, one of the unlucky programs relegated to mid-major status during the nascent BCS era. Now the Golden Eagles are a major-conference powerhouse collecting 20-win seasons by the handful, the kind of team that can unselfconsciously call mighty Syracuse its rival.
Marquette's journey over those 10 years—both in how the mid-major label came to be and how teams like the Golden Eagles managed to shed it—reflects the greater changes afoot in college basketball.
And that journey starts, as these stories so often do, with one great player—in this case, one we've come to know well over the intervening years: Dwyane Wade.
The Mid-Major Dilemma
The term "mid-major" first surfaced in 1977, but it did not enter popular use until Gonzaga's rise from obscurity in 1999.
Gonzaga's classification as "mid-major" was itself an implicit acknowledgement of emerging divisions in the amateur sporting landscape, divisions that had been reinforced by the early '90s emergence of six so-called "BCS conferences."
In essence, the BCS took a conference structure that had once been comparably fluid—with scores of independent schools floating through the ether—and re-imagined it as a simple dichotomy: the haves and the have nots. The majors and the mid-majors. The power conferences and everyone else.
When Dwyane Wade arrived at Marquette in the fall of 2000, the Golden Eagles, then members of Conference USA, belonged in the "everyone else" camp.
Wade's success in resurrecting the program would become part of the mid-major narrative, a narrative that continues to evolve as we grapple with college basketball's shifting contours.
Today, we're increasingly unsure of what that label means and to whom it applies.
Gonzaga was a mid-major in 1999 when it crashed the Elite Eight. Today? Who knows.
Our uncertainty is rooted in the eye-opening success of certain programs and, to some small but meaningful extent, what Wade and Marquette did one decade ago in the 2003 NCAA tournament.
Coming to Marquette
Wade was lightly recruited out of Chicago's Harold L. Richards High School. Not because the 6'5" guard couldn't play, but because his board scores hovered below the minimum qualifying standard.
While other schools demurred, Marquette's Tom Crean, then in his first year as a college head coach, maintained a dogged pursuit.
Desperate to revive a moribund program and sensing Wade's transformative potential, Crean contacted Wade as soon as the summer recruiting period opened.
Wade later recalled Crean's words to him in his autobiography, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball (h/t Bob Wolfley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel):
I wanted to be your first call...And I want to be your first call because this is how important you are to Marquette and our future.
When Crean arrived for the 1999-2000 season, Marquette was in the grisly final stages of a protracted decline.
Beginning in the late 1960s under legendary coach Al McGuire, the Golden Eagles (then known as the Warriors) posted 13 consecutive 20-win seasons. McGuire won the school's first and only NCAA championship in 1977 and retired immediately thereafter.
In the 22 seasons between McGuire's departure and Crean's arrival, Marquette posted almost as many losing seasons (four) as NCAA tournament victories (six), and it never once advanced past the Sweet 16.
The Golden Eagles' descent mirrored larger trends in NCAA athletics. As college football's earning power spurred the formation of larger, gridiron-centric power conferences, non-football-playing schools like Marquette lagged behind.
Not surprisingly, college basketball's power structure began to look more and more like college football's.
The chart below divides every Final Four team from 1950 to 1999 into one of three camps: "Division I football schools," "Division I-AA football schools" and schools either without a football program or with a Division III classification. The categorization corresponds to however the school's football program was classified at the time of the Final Four appearance.
As you'll see, a Final Four basketball team in the 1990s was much more likely to have a corresponding Division I football program than a Final Four basketball team in the 1950s.
|Decade||Division I-A Football Schools||Division I-AA Football Schools*||Division III or No Football Program|
*The NCAA did not form Division I-AA until 1978.
It should be noted that all six of the non-football-playing Final Four teams during the 1980s—as well as three of the four Division I-AA Final Four teams from the 1990s—came out of the Big East.
In other words, every single team that made the Final Four from 1980 to 1999 either represented a football-playing school or a major television conference (usually both).
The Golden Eagles, of course, were neither.
For Dwyane Wade—born in 1982—that meant no school matching Marquette's basic athletic profile had qualified for a Final Four during his lifetime.
As much as Crean had taken a chance on Wade, Wade, too, was taking a chance on Marquette.
The gamble would pay dividends for both men.
Glory Restored: The 2002-03 Season
Lingering academic issues kept Wade from playing his freshman season, but he thrived during his sophomore campaign, scoring 17.8 points per game and leading the Golden Eagles to their first season of 25 wins or more since 1977.
Though the season ended ingloriously with a first-round loss to 12th-seeded Tulsa, Marquette had at least regained national relevance. And with Wade returning for his junior season, expectations were about to reach a two-decade high.
The Golden Eagles entered the 2002-03 season ranked 18th in the AP poll. It was the school's first preseason Top 20 ranking since 1982, and Tom Crean's team quickly proved itself worthy of the hype.
Wade scored a game-high 17 points in an opening-day win over Randy Foye, Allan Ray and the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden. Midway through the second half, Wade converted an alley-oop dunk that the AP called "the game's most spectacular play."
Marquette would go on to spend the entire season ranked in the AP Top 25. Beginning in late January, the Golden Eagles reeled off a 10-game winning streak that spanned more than a month. By season's end, Tom Crean's team led Conference USA with a 14-2 league record and sat ninth in the AP poll.
Marquette had to settle for a No. 3 seed after dropping its first game in the conference tournament. It needed a stellar performance from future Indiana Pacer Travis Diener just to escape its opening-round NCAA matchup with Holy Cross.
The Golden Eagles survived similarly close calls against Missouri and Pittsburgh to set up an Elite Eight showdown with No. 1 seed Kentucky.
The Wildcats had gone 16-0 in SEC play that year and were making their seventh Regional Final appearance in the last 12 seasons. Star senior Keith Bogans, a product of Maryland prep powerhouse DeMatha, was in his fourth year as a starter.
It was as clear a contrast as you'll find in a late-stage NCAA tournament game: the blueblood vs. the upstart.
And when Wade skied for a thunderous second-half dunk to put the Golden Eagles ahead 63-47, the game had its enduring symbolic capstone. Marquette had beaten mighty Kentucky. The unheralded recruit from Chicago had beaten the ballyhooed (albeit injured) baller from D.C.
Most important of all, a "mid-major" had beaten the ultimate high-major team.
The final score read Marquette 83, Kentucky 69. Wade finished with a triple-double: 29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists.
The media coverage that trailed Marquette to that year's Final Four focused largely on the school's Cinderella qualities. Indeed, the powers that be in college basketball had grown so powerful, that a one-time national champion could be reasonably understood as obscure.
In an article entitled "Marquette Takes the Long Road," Joe Lapointe of The New York Times wrote:
[Marquette], founded in 1881, is considered the underdog of the Final Four field, which includes Texas and Syracuse in the other semifinal. The Golden Eagles (known as the Warriors in McGuire's era) have little recent tournament experience and a young coach, Tom Crean, who is in only his fourth season at Marquette.
Among the Final Four, Marquette is the only Catholic university, the only one without a football team and the only one not named after a place. The Rev. Robert A. Wild., the president of the university, said: "People sometimes wonder, 'Are you in Marquette, Mich.?' No. We're in Milwaukee."
That Marquette was soundly beaten by Kansas in the national semifinal game mattered less than the fact that Tom Crean's team had made it to New Orleans.
Just as the collective sense of disbelief that followed the Golden Eagles' success was a sign of the times, so too was their triumph a harbinger of coming changes.
As Times columnist William C. Rhoden put it after the Kentucky game, "Teams like Marquette are called 'midmajors,' but Wade...proved...that the distinction matters less and less."
The New Big East and Beyond
Marquette's breakout 2003 campaign restored the program's luster and served as a springboard for its move to the Big East in 2005.
The Golden Eagles joined Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida as the league's newest members, a quintet that signified the resurgence of basketball outside the Power Six.
Of the five, only South Florida could be considered a football-first school. The other four were coveted primarily for their basketball prowess, in stark contrast to the 1991 Big East expansion that saw Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Temple, Rutgers and Miami join the league.
Back then, the conference's chief concern was establishing football dominance. Now the focus had shifted to basketball, a sign that the power conferences were taking note of mid-majors like Marquette and their burgeoning success.
In the end, though, the Big Six could only co-opt so much.
Soon George Mason, Butler and VCU were making Final Four runs of their own, while other outsiders like Gonzaga, San Diego State, St. Joseph's and BYU were winding their way into the AP Top 10.
Comparing the 10 years that preceded Wade's 2003 Final Four run and the 10 years the followed is a revealing exercise. College basketball doesn't necessarily have greater balance or more parity now—as ESPN's Jay Bilas recently pointed out—but the types of schools that compete at the game's highest levels have undoubtedly changed.
Marquette and Wade were at the vanguard of that journey. In certain ways, they helped move it forward. Even more than that, though, they help mark the distance we've traveled.
When the Golden Eagles play for a spot in the Final Four on Saturday, there will be no tributes to their resurrection or allusions to the structural obstacles they've overcome.
In fact, they'll be the favorites. And no one will think anything of it.