- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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MILWAUKEE -- The calendar read Wednesday, Oct. 14. But the madness of two nights later across the country had already started at Marquette.
A preseason All-American candidate was diving for a loose ball in the rugby-like scrum that slid all the way to the back wall -- some five feet out of bounds.
The Golden Eagles not involved in this particular battle were screaming, clapping and echoing the drill-like encouragement from the coaching staff.
And, once summoned to the court, every player -- and for that matter manager -- tossed each other around as if they were about to grab the Holy Grail. The desire was over a basketball, but the atmosphere under the rim was medieval. Players clawed, scratched and scrummed until exhaustion.
If your ears weren't ringing as practice wore on, your heart rate certainly increased just trying to keep up with the pace.
The primary cause of the chaos was a variation of Michigan State's "War Drill," which shouldn't come as a surprise since Marquette's headmaster once served under Tom Izzo. And, like the excitement over Marquette basketball once again in these parts, the rebounding drill knows no bounds.
The reason Marquette was on the court two days earlier than most everyone else this season was because of its plans to venture out to Costa Rica for four games in five days. Oct. 14 was actually the Golden Eagles' 10th practice of the season. So, this wasn't just a typical early-October session.
Or was it?
If this is what Tom Crean expects from his Eagles each day, well, Marquette might have the copyright on practice intensity. Michigan State and Oklahoma, whose head coaches Izzo and Kelvin Sampson, are each off the Jud Heathcote tree might argue.
But Marquette, unlike the Sooners and Spartans, can't rely on talent to get it through its conference -- let alone deep into March. No, the theme for this season's Marquette squad starts with intensity. The Eagles aren't as talented as they were in New Orleans. Losing a first-team all-American and lottery pick like Dwyane Wade (No. 5 to Miami) will do that to a rising program.
But with or without Wade, the Eagles will play just as hard as they did in getting to the Final Four for the first time in 25 years.
The 2003-04 Eagles will be as scrappy as their head coach Tom Crean, who constantly stays on edge by taking the approach that he hasn't yet arrived in the profession. Forget about the convincing win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight. And definitely wipe away the embarrassing loss to Kansas in the Final Four. If the Eagles don't make a valiant effort to get to another Final Four in the next two seasons, they'll be the first to feel as though they were just another one-year wonder.
"Anyone who watches us practice and sees how hard we work, and the effort we put in, can't help but think that we'll have success," said junior guard Travis Diener, whose place on several preseason All-America lists can be traced back to last year's NCAA Tournament run. "I've had an unbelievable career in two years, but I'm not ready to say one Final Four and that's it. As long as practice goes as well as it has, then we can do what we did (last year)."
Wade's departure after three seasons on campus was expected, but outside of Carmelo Anthony's exit after one year, will have possibly the biggest impact on a team this season. No one player did as much for his team as Wade did for Marquette. He not only lead the team in scoring (21.5 ppg) but also earned a ranking among the top 10 within Conference USA in five different categories.
Leading rebounder Robert Jackson's eligibility also expired, and while both he and Wade were instrumental in getting the Eagles to the Final Four, the key to Marquette sustaining its resurgence to elite status for the first time since 1977 is Crean's decision to stay.
Crean is quick to say any the domino theory postulated by ESPN.com and others never should have included him. The chain of coaching changes that started with Matt Doherty's forced resignation at North Carolina to Roy Williams leaving Kansas for Chapel Hill and Bill Self bolting Illinois for Lawrence wasn't going to include Crean. Never mind the natural reaction was to assume Crean would go to Illinois because of his Big Ten ties at Michigan State. Crean realized he had just as good a job at Marquette.
Crean eventually signed a long-term deal, playing the Final Four to his advantage and financial security. The university ripped up his existing contract he signed in April 2002. As for the new deal, well Marquette, as a private school, won't officially release the details.
Whatever Marquette gave Crean to stay, he denies there was ever any interest in the Illinois job. Illinois is as quick to say it was only interested in the man they got -- Bruce Weber of Southern Illinois -- although they did interview Rice's Willis Wilson.
"There wasn't (a domino involving Crean) so we'll never find out what would have happened," Crean said. "I'm excited about being the coach here since the day I met with Bill Cords when we (at Michigan State) were in the NCAA Tournament (four years ago)."
Crean is Marquette's sixth coach since Al McGuire retired after 16 seasons with a national title in 1977. None of Crean's predecessors lasted more than six seasons. Some left by choice like Rick Majerus, while others never could create the magic or consistency needed to keep their jobs. Crean hopes to end the university's revolving-door of coaches by sustaining the Eagles' current level of success despite some built-in obstacles.
Crean has already lost assistants Tim Buckley (Ball State), Tod Kowalczyk (Wisconsin-Green Bay) and Darrin Horn (Western Kentucky) in just four seasons -- proof that he's doing something awfully right. But the biggest hurdle is a work in progress, which is making Marquette a destination instead of a stepping stone. If Crean can do this, it changes the future of this program -- especially as it embarks for a likely move to the Big East in 2004-05.
"I love talking to juniors in high school and looking at sophomores and letting them know that I'll be here for the long term," said Crean. "I want them to see our new building (the state-of-the-art practice facility called the Al McGuire Center). Why shouldn't this be one of the greatest jobs in the country? It is."
Like the program, Crean's 2003-04 team was a work in progress as it left for Costa Rica last week. Nagging injuries to Karon Bradley, Scott Merritt, freshman Dameon Mason and JC transfer Marcus Jackson -- four players expected to be in Crean's eight-man rotation -- slowed that progress. But as long as Diener, Scott Novak, Terry Sanders and Todd Townsend are healthy, Marquette might not repeat last year's 27-6 mark and instead compete for top honors in C-USA. Marquette returned from its Costa Rica trip unbeaten.
"We have to play with the bull's-eye on our back every game," Diener said. "Teams will give us their best shot. We're the returning conference champs and everyone knows who we are.
"We put pressure on ourselves to make the Final Four last year. We know now that people might not respect us after we lost Dwyane and Rob. We've got to prove we can be good to get back to a Final Four and win a national championship."
But without Wade and Jackson, the dynamics change on the court -- in a hurry.
Diener won't get the same looks he got last year when he averaged just under 12 points and shot 36 percent from behind the 3-point arc. He'll be rushed more without Wade, not to mention, counted on to produce more. Merritt and Townsend have to pick up for Jackson's toughness on the boards, where he averaged 7.5 rebounds a game. Sanders (2.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg) will have to become an option who also produces. Bradley will have to help Diener when the Eagles get pressured, while Mason and Jackson must be the breakout scorers to match their potential.
Oh, and the defense has to be as intense on a nightly basis as it was during that Oct. 14 practice.
"These guys picked it up in the offseason, the day after the Final Four," Crean said. "There was an open gym on the Wednesday after we got back and they were playing. They were lifting by Thursday. They were excited to practice. I hope the intensity you're seeing out there continues to grow. We had a good one (practice on Oct. 14) but we've got to sustain it and play through fatigue."
Marquette must also play through the growing pains of a budding top 25 program. The season starts on opening night in Madison Square Garden with a matchup against St. John's in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. It also includes trips to recent Final Four visitors Arizona and Wisconsin before the start of the C-USA slate.
Whether Crean keeps Marquette among the elite in 2003-04, expect his players to scrap with the best and dive for every loose ball.
And, together the Golden Eagles and their coach just may stick around longer than expected come March ... again.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.