Marquette had been a proud basketball team in the age of Al McGuire back in the 1970s, culminating with a national championship in 1977. The program remained competitive under Hank Raymonds in the years following, but otherwise began a gradual descent, as they looked to find a new identity, as independents went out of fashion and programs like Marquette scrambled to find a home. In 2003 they finally made another big national splash, a season that doubled as the national unveiling of future NBA star Dwayne Wade.
Wade had emerged in his sophomore season of 2002, averaging 18 points/7 rebounds/3 assists per game. The Golden Eagles won 26 games and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time under second-year coach Tom Crean, but a heartbreaking two-point loss to Tulsa knocked them out in the opening round. Marquette had been a #5 seed and was hoping for a chance to play Kentucky in the second round, a game that would give them the kind of national prominence Crean and Wade were building toward. That would have to wait.
The 2003 Marquette Golden Eagles had more than just Wade. Robert Jackson averaged 15 points per game and at 6’10” was a quality rebounder underneath. To a lesser extent, the same was true of 6’10” Scott Merrill. MU got quality three-point shooting from guard Travis Diener.
And even though Steve Novak didn’t play a lot off the bench, he could also hit from long range, connecting on 51 percent of his three-point shots. Novak managed to turn that gig into a nice NBA career, as he still fulfills the same role for the New York Knicks today.
Marquette was ranked 19th to start the season, and started 8-1 with only a two-point defeat to Notre Dame. The Golden Eagles beat their other traditional non-conference rival, with a 63-54 home win over Wisconsin. A hiccup right around the New Year, where MU lost to East Carolina and Dayton knocked Wade’s team to the fringe of the Top 25, but it was there they bottomed out and from early January to March, Marquette was coming on strong.
They’d reached #11 in the polls by the first part of February and made the national Top 10 later that month. Marquette was then in Conference USA, with its acceptance to the Big East still three years off, and they racked up two wins over the league’s traditional power in Cincinnati. It paved the way to a C-USA title, a 23-5 regular season record and a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Wade made first-team All-American and was well thought of by NBA scouts as the draft approached. Wade was only a junior, but it seemed likely he would leave. The teams with high picks were looking for talent after the consensus first choice, a high school kid out of Ohio whose future would one day be linked directly to Wade’s—that kid being LeBron James.
As special as the 2003 team is for Marquette fans, their NCAA dream nearly got derailed before it even began. They matched up with fellow Jesuit school Holy Cross and barely escaped with a 72-68 win. Then Missouri gave the Golden Eagles everything they could handle, with MU finally surviving in overtime 101-92. They left Indianapolis still breathing and now would head further north up the I-94 corridor to the regionals in the Midwest.
A lot of people from Wisconsin would make the trip, as the Badgers were in the same regional, giving the locals hope for a state rivalry showdown for the Final Four on Saturday. But that would necessitate two upsets. Marquette was set to play second-seeded Pitt. And Wisconsin had to deal with #1 seed Kentucky, again opposite the Golden Eagles in the tournament bracket.
Pitt was a tough physical team. This writer was living in Pittsburgh at the time and hope was high the physical defense coached by Ben Howland, combined with the excellent work of guard Brandin Knight, could get the Panthers to the Final Four. But Wade knocked down 22 points, Merritt scored 17 and in a well-played game that was tight throughout, Marquette pulled out a 77-74 win. Earlier in the night, Kentucky had held off Wisconsin.
The regional final on Saturday afternoon might not have been the state showdown locals were hoping for, but Marquette was ready for national prominence. Kentucky joined Arizona as the top-heavy favorites to win the championship, but there was concern in Big Blue Nation over their relatively sluggish performance against Wisconsin and the ankle injury sustained by guard Keith Bogans.
Bogans would play and score 15 points, though his overall effectiveness was likely compromised. In reality, the perspective of history makes it look silly that the health of Bogans was considered so crucial when Dwayne Wade was on the floor. The Marquette star was nothing short of dazzling, scoring 29 points, dishing 11 assists and grabbing 11 rebounds. It was a Magic Johnson-esque performance against one of the nation’s most storied programs and to the shock of everyone, Marquette not only competed, but it was a rout. They led 45-26 at halftime and the 83-69 final is actually deceptively close.
It was the final win of the season, as Marquette showed up flat against Kansas in the Final Four and were absolutely destroyed, 94-61. While the nature of the loss left a sour taste, Crean had brought the Golden Eagle program back to national prominence. And in the process, the career of Dwayne Wade—one that would lead him to key one NBA championship for Miami in 2006 and be the sidekick to LeBron on another in 2012—was showcased for the nation.