We’re more than halfway through the Sweet 16 in our Marquette Courtside Millennium Bracket as we try, with the help of WhatIfSports, to try and sort out which Marquette teams of the 2000s really were better than each other. We explained the concept back when we were first getting used to quarantine. Here’s what the bracket looks like coming into this blog. We’re going to jump right back into a matchup between the fourth-seeded 2011 team and the 13th-seeded team from this past season, for which the first game of the three-game series was won by 2011, 85-57, in our last blog.
Round of 16 Matchup #5
#4 2011 Marquette (Buzz Williams, 22-15, 9-9/T-9th of 16 BIG EAST, Darius Johnson-Odom, 15.8 ppg) vs. #13 2020 Marquette (Steve Wojciechowski, 18-12, 8-10/T-6th of 10 BIG EAST, Markus Howard 27.8 ppg)
Game #2: If you were thinking this was going to be much of a series, you were wrong. A 23-5 run for the 2011 team in the first half made this game almost as lopsided as the first one. Granted, unlike the first game, Markus Howard actually got some help from Koby McEwen (17 points) and Sacar Anim (14), but with four 11ers scoring in double-figures and the team shooting 54 percent, there was no stopping them on their way to victory. In fact, the 2011 team shot 54 percent for the series, exposing the 2020 team’s defensive flaws and ensuring this year’s team will no longer be discussed in this bracket. 2011 Williams/Johnson-Odom 93, 2020 Wojciechowski/Howard 84. (Box scores & game play-by-plays here)
Post-Matchup: Darius Johnson-Odom’s 20 ppg average and ability to at least contain Howard earned him MVP honors. Johnson-Odom expressed concern about the quality of the 2020 team, but also credited his own team’s great play. “Howard’s the real deal,” he said. “I think he could have used more help. But we came ready for them. This group can run with anyone. I know it. We’re battle-tested.”
After that one, let’s bounce over to our last matchup with two teams we haven’t had in a blog yet, the team in the bracket from longest ago, and a so-far rare matchup of a coach taking on himself.
Round of 16 Matchup #6
#7 2002 Marquette (Tom Crean, 26-7, 9-9/2nd of 7 Conference USA American, Dwyane Wade 17.8 ppg) vs. #10 2006 Marquette (Tom Crean, 20-11, 10-6/T-4th of 16 BIG EAST, Steve Novak 17.5 ppg)
About 2002: It’s difficult to believe now, but Tom Crean was the only major D-I coach to see Dwyane Wade’s potential. Wade had to lose a year of eligibility to bring his grades up to snuff, but he made the wait worthwhile in 2002, becoming one of the nation’s best all-around players in his first college season. Ultimately, 2002 was a warm-up year for 2003, though, as fifth-seeded MU fell in a dreaded 5/12 matchup against Tulsa in the NCAA first round. No. 1 song: Ain’t It Funny, Jennifer Lopez ft. Ja Rule.
About 2006: Marquette’s 2005 leap from Conference USA to the BIG EAST was a big step up, though any questions about whether MU belonged were answered when Steve Novak lit up No. 2 UConn for 41 points in an emotional 94-79 win to kick off league play. Marquette was never ranked, though it did have a three-game stretch where it beat No. 17 Georgetown, No. 9 Pittsburgh and always-tough Notre Dame. MU fell to Alabama as a seven-seed in first round of March Madness. No. 1 song: So Sick, Ne-Yo.
Overlap: Though there’s no actual overlap between the two rosters, a number of the older players from 2006, like Novak, Joe Chapman and Chris Grimm would play with younger members of the 2002 team, like Wade, Travis Diener and Scott Merritt in the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.
Pre-Matchup: Of course, there is one huge piece of overlap between the two teams — Crean himself. In the pre-matchup interviews, 2002 Crean and 2006 Crean had fun with each other, with ’06 Crean calling his younger self “too young and inexperienced” while also saying “he has no idea how good of a coach he can be.” Crean from 2002, meanwhile, said his older counterpart “surely is past his prime, as he probably was four years ago” and “probably was overrated from the start, anyway.”
Game #1: This series looks like it will be tight. The opening game went to overtime when 2006 Crean, in what can only be called sim-coaching instinct, took Novak out and left Mike Kinsella on the floor after Wade made a pair of free throws to give the ’02 team a two-point lead. As the shot and game clocks neared zeroes at the end of regulation, Kinsella took a jumper from the free-throw line when he couldn’t find an open teammate — it went, giving fans extra basketball. In OT, though, the young trio of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews didn’t have the nerve to keep up with the already savvy Wade. When the ’06 team cut a seven-point overtime deficit to three, Wade was in Matthews’ face as he forced a potential game-tying shot with nine seconds left. It ricocheted off the padding on the underside of the backboard glass directly to 2002’s Oluoma Nnamaka. Cordell Henry then hit one of two free-throws to capture the tough win. 2002 Crean/Wade 81, 2006 Crean/Novak 77, overtime.
Game #2: With its back against the wall, the 2006 team effectively turned more to Novak in the second game. Two Novak threes within a minute, early in the contest, helped make it 18-10 for the ‘06 squad, after which, the active defense of the young freshman ’06 starters never allowed the ’02 team any closer than four. While Wade leads all scorers with 21, Novak gets four more points, 15, than he did in 10 more minutes of floor time in the opener, also collecting 11 rebounds and five assists. The 2006 bench outscores also 2002’s, 23-11, to force a third game. 2006 Crean/Novak 83, 2002 Crean/Wade 67.
Unfortunately, you know we have to leave this on a cliffhanger. Next game? Next blog. Of course.
IN WHICH I DISAGREE WITH SPORTS & NATIONAL LEADERSHIP: There’s a difference between optimism and realism. Optimism is stating what you want. Realism is dealing with reality.
Optimism has been reigning recently in a certain portion of the sports world, as we were told a goal for pro sports is to have the NFL start under normal circumstances in the fall, and baseball, for some reason, is talking about a complex, pie-in-the-sky plan to play games in some sort of weird not-so-isolated isolation in Arizona. The problem, though, is you can’t force optimism when reality is an unknown. I’m not willing to put football, baseball, or any sport, ahead of lives.
Earlier goals for normalcy were Easter (nope) and June 1 (still in doubt). I really think the better plan, though, rather than optimism, is realism. Let’s make the current reality as good as possible before we even think about the old reality. Sports are great, but we live in an age where we have all the streaming video we could ever want at our fingers. We can find other ways to pass the time.
That said, just keep making the best of every day. I urge you to do that until our next blog. Oh, and in a rare thing to say here at Marquette Courtside: Happy Easter.
Photo: Getty Images