By Tim Gutowski Published Nov 30, 2001 at 5:08 AM

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo ought to be turning about four shades of crimson this morning.

Because not only has ex-assistant and current Marquette head coach Tom Crean built his Golden Eagles in the Spartans' image, they're practically mirroring them in the latest Associated Press Top 25: Michigan State is 22nd; Marquette, 23rd.

The comparisons stop there, though, because Crean doesn't yet recruit boatloads of McDonald's All-Americans simply by showing recent Final Four tapes. And while the Spartans have stumbled in the season's first month, the Golden Eagles have soared to a 5-0 start behind a partial qualifier from suburban Chicago with a typo in his first name.

Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade has done it all thus far

Dwyane (and forgive me for spelling it wrong last week) Wade is only 6-4, but inch-for-inch, he's more exciting than any player in the state this side of Ray Allen. In an adeptly descriptive sequence against Gonzaga in Saturday night's Great Alaska Shootout championship game, Wade rejected a Bulldog shot on the perimeter, pulled down the carom himself and sprinted the length of the floor for a finishing slam. Any facet of the tripartite play would have dominated either of the last two MU season highlight tapes.

Wade appears to be all the things that DePaul thought it had with Quentin Richardson a few years ago: a perimeter player with a superior floor game, a deft rebounder with a nose for the ball, and an offensive go-to with a scorer's mentality. He leads the team with 9.2 rebounds a game (and Tennessee, Gonzaga and Indiana are anything but undersized), has already had some sublime assists and scores nearly 21 per game without being a true shooter.

He's also a freshman, if only partially, as evidenced by his 24 turnovers (more than double his next highest teammate) and bouts of spastic thoughtlessness with the dribble. But in between -- oh my.

Wade is so impressive, in fact, that Zack McMillan of the Memphis Commerical-Appeal wrote last week that he might be the best freshman in Conference USA. Such a statement takes on the gravity of the nearby Pyramid when one considers both ESPN the Magazine and The New York Times Magazine have profiled local newcomer Dajuan Wagner in their most recent issues.

Yet the season is just five games old, and while the win over IU was impressive, injuries left the Vols thinner than Golden Eagles center Scott Merritt, and the tourney magician 'Zags did lose big man Casey Calvary to graduation. And as much as we all like Bo Ellis, his Chicago State team might lose a tight game to Milwaukee Vincent if it was played at MECCA.

I'm not trying to dampen expectations, merely temper them. This appears to be a solid Marquette group. Beyond Wade, senior point guard Cordell Henry is ready to flourish on the offensive end, and twin frontcourt men Odartey Blankson (Wade's high school teammate) and Oluoma Nnamaka (a member of the Swedish national team) provide long arms, hustle and some occasional points. Jon Harris is this team's Andy Kowske, and if David Diggs can shoot the 3 every night like he did against Gonzaga (5-for-5), the bench will be lethal. Toss in freshman guard Travis Diener (imagine a combo of ex-MU star Anthony Pieper and Mike Kelley) for good measure and you're looking at an honest-to-goodness eight-man rotation. Who knew?

All this is from a team picked for the middle of the CUSA pack, and frankly, the predictions were only logical. Rick Pitino is expected to vault Louisville back to greatness, Wagner and John Calipari's Memphis team were a preseason Top 10 pick, underrated South Florida returns stars Altron Jackson (18.9 ppg) and B.B. Waldon (7.2 rpg), and last time we checked, Bob Huggins still held down a job in Cincinnati. The conference slate is borderline brutish.

But then there's Crean again, exhorting the home crowd against Loyola, talking to the MU faithful in Anchorage, holding up his young daughter and son in a post-Alaska interview, grinning from ear to proverbial ear. Maybe the Golden Eagles are too young to realize all the possible negatives, he suggested as his team celebrated on the floor behind him. And here's hoping he's right.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.