The era of Marquette's "Three Amigos" ended with an 83-79 loss to Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday afternoon.
Jerel McNeal led a heroic second half charge and finished with 30 points. He and Wes Matthews, who scored 24, laid it all on the line. Dominic James also showed great courage in rushing to come back from injury in order to try and give his team a lift.
But their careers are over now, and the question will be raised: How will this team be remembered 10 years from now? Twenty years from now?
Will they be remembered as three of the top-10 leading scorers in program history, consistently winning 20-plus games a season while playing in the Big East when it was college basketball's toughest league?
Or will all these achievements and accolades boil down to a nostalgic string of "what-if"s?
This group was frequently regarded nationally – nationally – as being the best backcourt in the country. Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas, and others who evaluate college basketball for a living said this Marquette team had something really special going for it. Yet this is a team that never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
For one thing, no one will ever question the heart of these players.
I distinctly remember being accosted by a certain member of the Milwaukee press for clapping during this year's senior day festivities. I was guilty of clapping only once – during Dominic James' speech, when he said that all four members of the 2009 class will receive their degrees in May.
These players should be congratulated for their hard work, both on the court and in the classroom. They are certainly three young men who represented their university with grace and class, both on and off the court.
Eventually in life, persistence and hard work is rewarded. And people who possess the intangibles those seniors possess – heart, fortitude, trust – always manage to land on their feet. Those people understand that life is a marathon, and sometimes you're behind, but no matter what happens you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. These players are going to do just fine in the grand scheme of things.
But unfortunately, in the world we live in, people are judged based on cold, hard results. Businessmen are judged on the bottom line. How much did you make the company? How much did you save? How much did you waste? Schools can lose thousands of dollars of government support if they don't meet archaic test-score platforms. And if politicians don't produce results their constituents are happy with, whether it's their fault or not, they usually find themselves out of office after the next election.
The unfortunate bottom line for this group of heralded seniors is that they produced only two NCAA Tournament wins in four years.
On the biggest stage in their realm, they found ways to lose. They flat-out laid an egg against Michigan State two years ago. Last year, they mismanaged their last several offensive possessions against Stanford, taking bad shots and allowing the Cardinal a chance to take the game away from them with a last-second shot. On Sunday, Lazar Hayward committed a costly mistake – stepping on the end line during an inbounds play – that prevented Marquette from getting a last shot against Missouri.
What if none of those unfortunate plays happened? You will be hard-pressed to find a Marquette fan not asking him-or-herself that question in the coming days. "What-if"s are the hallmark of unrealized potential.
And in a game where quality guards rule, this team legitimately had the talent – had the potential – for a run at the Final Four, their version of the Promised Land.
Sure, they got to the NCAA Tournament every year. Sure, they consistently won 20-plus games a season in the toughest conference in basketball. A great stat they can throw out at bars is that only Pittsburgh won more Big East games during that four-year span than they did. But will that stat be remembered by the masses in 20 years?
Now there are far more important things in life than winning college basketball games. Far more important things. But sometimes sports can be the greatest metaphor – the greatest microcosm – for life in general. Because, to quote the immortal Nuke LaLoosh, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains."
A contemplative shower has settled over Marquette basketball's departing class of 2009. How will they be remembered when the clouds part? Only time will tell.
Note: this article is an opinion column and does not necessarily reflect the views of the MarquetteHoops.com administration.