This weekend marks the 9th annual Bracketbuster Weekend. This weekend was, of course, drawn up by the evil geniuses over at ESPN to provide extra exposure, and help artificially inflate the computer rankings, of teams in mid-major conferences. And, of course, put a little coin in their pocket by capitalizing on the burgeoning popularity of college basketball's "little guys" while they're at it (and God bless 'em for it. This is America, dammit.)
Today I look down my nose at the effort that so many people make in pumping up these little programs that could. I roll my eyes when national yelling heads want to give bonus points to mid-majors for playing bigger schools close, but losing. I scoff when a team like VCU gets an invite to the dance over teams that were probably more deserving. I can do this, because my school plays big boy college basketball, in the greatest hoops conference in the history of history. We have been to the Dance in 7 consecutive seasons, and appear assured to make it an eighth this year. But one doesn't have to venture too far down memory lane to be reminded that this wasn't always the case.
The year was 1993. The glow of the Al McGuire and Hank Raymonds glory years had long since faded. The Bob Dukiet era was a dark, dark period in history of Marquette Warrior basketball. This small, Midwestern, Catholic institution had been toiling in mediocrity in a conference called the Great Midwest. We would have traded large sums of money and/or firstborn children, to see our team play in a nationally televised game. Today we have a term for a program like that: mid-major. And though it pains me to look back on it now, that's exactly what we were.
After the jump, Mr. K looks into Marquette's sordid, mid-major past
In March of '93, the Warriors received their first invite to the NCAA Tournament in 10 years. They were a 12 seed, and earned the right to play "Big Country" Bryant Reeves and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. There was great rejoicing. They kept the game close, but ended up losing by 12 to the Cowboys. By all accounts we were really just happy to have been there and have ended the lengthy dry spell. Exactly the attitude you would expect from a mid-major.
In the 93-94 season Marquette returned a solid senior core of Jim McIlvaine, Damon Key, and Robb Logterman, along with the reigning GMC Rookie of the Year, sophomore Roney Eford. They also added freshmen Anthony Pieper and Chris Crawford. This squad would capture the Great Midwest regular season title - Marquette's first ever conference championship. They profiled exactly like the type of mid-major that the big boys would not want to face come March, and that's exactly how it played out. Despite their 22-8 regular season record, and their conference championship, the Warriors got just a 6 seed in the 1994 NCAA Tournament (Mid-major respect).
Marquette downed Louisiana Lafayette in the first round, to give the program its first Tournament win in 12 years. Then they faced off against a young, talented Kentucky team (a team that would win the NCAA Title two years later). The veteran Warriors stunned the Wildcats, running away to a 75-63 victory. Marquette was suddenly Cinderella. As a 13-year old at the time, I can vividly remember the pandemonium that followed this victory. There wasn't much to cheer about in Wisconsin sports at that time, so this victory was celebrated as if they had actually won the tournament. A few years later I would listen to a high school teacher of mine, who was a student at MU in '94, tell the story of how he broke down in tears when Marquette beat Kentucky. The man WEPT, not for winning the tournament or even the region, but for making it out of the first weekend - a reaction that can only be found in fans of mid-majors.
After that momentous victory, Coach Kevin O'Neill did what all mid-major coaches do after having a modicum of success in the Tournament - he bolted for Tennessee, the SEC and all they had to offer (read: cash). Mike Deane took over and missed the tourney the following year. Deane's Golden Eagles would make the tournament in both '96 and '97 (thanks to a miracle run through the Conference USA tournament). But the general attitude that was settling in over the program was one of: "It isn't realistic to expect the team to be in contention for an NCAA berth every season." In other words, Marquette was on its way to becoming Dayton.
Luckily for Marquette fans, the Father Wild, Bill Cords, and friends decided they were not ok with this direction. The notion of being a program that had to hope to catch lightning in a bottle to even make the tournament, was not acceptable to them. In 1999, after going 14-15 and missing the tourney for a second straight season, Mike Deane was shown the door. His replacement was an energetic, enthusiastic, smarmy young coach/snake oil salesman named Tom Crean. Under the leadership of Wild, Cords, and Crean - and with a major assist from a guy named Dwyane Wade - Marquette was able to get off the slow road to obscurity and back into the fast lane of big time college basketball.
So this weekend the Murray States of the world can have their moment in the spotlight. I remember what it was like. Thankfully, for we Marquette fans, those days are now just a memory. This Saturday, instead of huddling around our TVs, waiting for the thrill of actually hearing ESPN announcers say the name of our school on a national broadcast, we will be watching our team play on the road, against the UConn Huskies - the defending national champions - expecting them to win. And there is nothing mid-major about that.