By Tim Gutowski Published Mar 01, 2005 at 5:09 AM

{image1} Since April 5, 2003, it hasn't been easy being a Marquette fan.

On that day, Kansas outdid the best MU men's basketball team since 1977 in a humbling national semifinal game, 94-61. But even though the Golden Eagles' most exciting season in a quarter-century ended with a thud, there was a distinct feeling that Marquette was once again a player on the national scene.

It hasn't worked out that way. Shortly after the Final Four defeat, Dwyane Wade announced he was entering the NBA Draft (a wise decision in retrospect). Following his defection, Tom Crean's team had a horrible February last season, causing it to miss the NCAA Tournament.

This season, it's gotten even worse. Conference play has been uneven at best, and Travis Diener's career came to a sad end last week when he broke a couple fingers during practice (Diener was just 83 points shy of breaking George Thompson's school scoring record). And barring a miracle run in the Conference USA tournament, MU will miss out on the big dance for a second consecutive year.

But we already know all this. What we don't know is what the future will bring. But it's a hot topic of conversation among Golden Eagles fans, with several areas highlighting the discussions.

What's wrong with Tom Crean?

The only people that go from smart to dumb (or vice versa) faster than coaches are parents. Two springs ago, Crean was the hottest coaching candidate in the nation. Today, people are starting to wonder if maybe he didn't just catch lightning (in this case, Wade) in a bottle.

As shallow as that judgment may appear, the questions are justified. Crean did suffer talent losses in both years, but that has also happened to both UW-Madison (Kirk Penney, Devin Harris) and UW-Milwaukee (Clay Tucker, Dylan Page) in each of the last two seasons. Both teams came back strong in the following years.

None of those players have Wade's talent, but losing stars is something that happens to good college teams. As the saying goes, good programs don't rebuild, they reload.

Including this season, Crean will have qualified for three NITs and two NCAAs in his six seasons (assuming an NIT bid this year), and his winning percentage (as of Monday) is .640 (110-62). Predecessor Mike Deane went to two NITs and two NCAAs in five seasons with a winning percentage of .645 (100-55).

The obvious difference here is that Crean went to a Final Four; Deane never got to a Sweet 16. And Crean is clearly the better recruiter. Still, the numbers look similar, and Deane wasn't too popular in Milwaukee by the end of his tenure.

Crean isn't going anywhere. And this isn't meant to disparage his credentials. But if he goes another season or two without a NCAA bid, Final Four memories will fade.


Crean came to MU with a reputation as a great recruiter, and he's landed Wade and Diener -- two of the program's best ever -- since he's been here. Sophomore Dameon Mason and freshman Ryan Amoroso continue the tradition of talent on the current roster. Next year, Crean has commitments from three of's Top 150: point guard Dominic James of Richmond, Ind. (No. 84); shooting guard Wesley Matthews, Jr. of Madison Memorial HS (No. 86) and point guard Jerel McNeal of Hillcrest, Ill. (No. 121). They promise to provide a lot of backcourt depth in the years to come.

But Crean really needs to land (and more importantly, cultivate) a quality big man. Amoroso could be a solid power forward in the Big East, and the hope is that 7-foot center Mike Kinsella can shake off injuries and finally develop in his two upper-class seasons. It will be trial by fire, however, in a vastly improved conference.

Is Marquette ready for the Big East?

No. MU's conference travails over the last two seasons raise some red flags as the changeover date approaches. The Big East doesn't get the respect of the ACC or even the Big 12, but it's claimed the last two NCAA titles (Syracuse in '03, UConn in '04). The top of the league is as solid as it gets -- UConn (ranked 20 in ESPN's latest RPI), Syracuse (22), and Pitt (64) are annual Top 20 teams. Boston College (5), Villanova (13), Notre Dame (52), West Virginia (53) and Georgetown (66) are all having good seasons and will vie for tourney berths (BC and 'Nova are locks, ND, WVU and G-Town are bubble teams).

The Big East also does well in the Sagarin Ratings. The ACC (at 84.22, by his complicated math) is first, followed closely by the Big 12 (82.89) and Big East (82.40). By comparison, Conference USA is eighth (78.09), which puts it behind the Missouri Valley Conference (79.07). For a little more insight, the Big Ten is fifth at 81.97.

Each fan has his or her own opinion about rankings such as these, but it's hard to dispute that MU will be upgrading league schedules in 2005-'06. As of now, they look overmatched.

Diener: NBA-bound?

Speaking of varying opinions -- half the people you talk to (MU students and alums) think Diener will be the next John Stockton, the other half think he'll be the next Mike Kelley (last time I checked, the former Badgers guard was doing color work on ESPN regional games).

Me? I think the prognosticators are fools. Placing bets against Travis Diener is a losing proposition, but betting on him excelling at the next level runs counter to eyesight -- NBA players are simply bigger and stronger. Of course, Diener will work out this summer to alleviate some of that, and -- as they say -- what he's got, you can't teach.

Is he the next Stockton or Scott Skiles? Hardly. Not that he won't be a good pro, but can we quit comparing him to guys that he resembles physically? Diener is not a drive-and-dish point guard -- he's a scorer who can also get his teammates involved. He's really got more in common stylistically with the Bucks' Maurice Williams or Minnesota's Sam Cassell than pure point guards like Stockton or Skiles.

Let's allow Diener to determine his own future. He's done OK without us so far.

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.