In one week, we were able to see just how far basketball has come in the state of Wisconsin. While many were appalled by the sight of fans brawling on a high school court after a prep contest, Marquette and Wisconsin were working to cement themselves as legitimate national powers.
The No. 2 Badgers' 71-66 loss to No. 25 Indiana Wednesday night may have actually done more to show the strength of the game here than any post-season success. Honestly, who thought they would ever see the day that fans would take the court after beating the University of Wisconsin in basketball? And of those strange few, how many thought that the fans would be from Indiana University, a team which recently held a 31-game winning streak over the Badgers?
While the Badgers were in the process of starting what they hope will be another 17-game winning streak (one that would take them to the National Championship), with a 69-52 defeat of Northwestern, Marquette was honoring the man who almost single-handedly made the move to the Big East Conference possible.
Dwyane Wade electrified Bradley Center crowds during his two years in a Marquette jersey. And in appreciation for those efforts -- as well as his development into one of the National Basketball Association's best players - the school retired his jersey at halftime of the Golden Eagles' 69-62 matinee victory over Providence.
In many ways, Wade represents the turning point in state hoops. Sure, he was from Chicago, but getting a player like that to come to Milwaukee, before Marquette was back on the national radar, was a lot like the Packers convincing Reggie White to come to Green Bay in 1993. His arrival and talents drew attention to the program and made it an attractive commodity when the Big East was looking to expand.
It's safe to say that aside from the hiring of Tom Crean as head coach in 1999, landing Wade was the single biggest reason that Marquette is again being mentioned in the same breath as the nation's best. There was a time that just getting into the tournament was a big deal, now concern isn't about the invitation, but how high the seeding will be.
Earlier this week, OMC columnist Dave Begel wrote about his excitement over watching the two top programs in the state play, and why not? Wisconsin, for many years, had been a basketball wasteland. The few prep standouts around here that were highly regarded went out-of-state to play. Players the caliber of Wade and the Badgers' Alando Tucker were the type of guys that you watched on television during the NCAA Tournament, not the type of players whose jerseys hang from the rafters of the Bradley and Kohl Centers.
Tickets in the Kohl Center are among the hardest to come by in the nation, and Marquette has set numerous records with Bradley Center crowds, reflecting just how intense and passionate fans are. Walk into any Water St. establishment on a weekend and see the growing numbers of red and gold shirts to see the grass-roots level of interest.
Even in a down year, UW-Milwaukee is still a success story. It wasn't that long ago that Steve Antrim was shown the door to usher in the disaster that was the Ric Cobb era. Thanks to Ryan and his successor, Bruce Pearl, the Panthers made a name for themselves with three trips to the NCAA in four years.
It's not just the men, either. Just hours after Marquette dispatched the Friars to crawl ever closer to first place in the Big East, the Golden Eagle women played host to No. 5 Connecticut at a sold-out Al McGuire Center and lost a taut 52-48 battle. While much of the attention in the past few years has gone to Tom Crean and the men's squad, Terri Mitchell's team has been just as impressive in the Big East; finishing 9-7 in the league last year and advancing all the way to the WNIT Final.
Heading into the showdown with the Huskies, Marquette was ranked 16th in the nation. The Golden Eagles have quietly established themselves as a team to beat in the Big East. With all the attention paid to the men's team, Mitchell and company have built one of the nation's best home-court advantages at the Al, and they've done it in relative obscurity.
UW-Milwaukee struggled through a tough non-conference season, but trails UW-Green Bay by just one game in the race for the Horizon League women's title and Wisconsin is starting to emerge from the depths of the Big Ten Conference behind Lisa Stone. Last weekend, the Badger women played before a crowd of more 15,000 at the Kohl Center.
People like Al McGuire and Dick Bennett were legends that built a foundation in Wisconsin. People like Wade, Crean, Ryan, and even Mitchell are taking that one step further. And the more success they all have will only lead to more in the future; be it through recruiting, through exposure, or through getting kids interested in the game.
Not too long ago, NBA All-Stars talk of No. 1 seeds, and national television appearances were all just a bright-eyed dream. Today, they're a part of everyday life. To paraphrase a hockey term, it's a great day for basketball. "Badger Bob" Johnson's words ring true, no matter what the sport. The game is the strongest it ever has been. Men and women, Division I or Division III, teams in Wisconsin making their mark and making people take notice.