Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wade's World

It has become de rigueur that in any story written about the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade the words “summer” and “free agency” must appear. Theorizing about whether Wade will stay with the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2003 is inherently a useless endeavor. What can be said with certainty is that Wade’s meteoric rise to coveted superstar hit hyper-speed in Marquette’s 83-69 victory over Kentucky in the NCAA tournament regional final.

Wade wasn’t a heralded recruit when he arrived at Marquette to play for Tom Crean. He slipped further from the national consciousness when, as an academic partial-qualifier, he got a late start to his college career. Wade unquestionably became Marquette’s star as a sophomore, but he didn’t register on the national radar until averaging 21.5 points per game and becoming Conference-USA’s player of the year in his junior season.

The Golden Eagles got on a roll in the 2003 NCAA tournament, knocking off Holy Cross, Missouri and then Pittsburgh. That ride was supposed to end against Kentucky, which had won 26 straight games for the longest winning streak in college basketball since 1996. The Wildcats were led by Keith Bogans, the SEC player of the year, who was battling a high-ankle sprain.

With Bogans ailing, the task of guarding Wade fell to Chuck Hayes, by trade a power forward and now a 6-foot, 6-inch center with the Houston Rockets. Wade was held in check offensively in the opening minutes, missing his first three shots. But he was making an impact on defense, with two early blocked shots. Wade started to come alive offensively when Kentucky started guarding him with the smaller Gerald Fitch. Wade began going to the boards, and got his first basket on an offensive rebound and dunk.

Later in the first half, after a quick breather, Wade took over point-guard duties from Travis Diener and sparked Marquette’s first big run. He hit a three-pointer and handed out two assists as the Golden Eagles scored eight consecutive points to take an 18-14 lead.

Wade’s ascendancy really began with just under seven minutes remaining in the first half after Kentucky big man Marquis Estill grabbed an offensive rebound. As Estill gathered himself for the put-back, Wade dropped down from the top of the key, then elevated to register yet another block by swatting the ball into the backboard. Wade then took the outlet pass and went the length of the floor, splitting Hayes and Bogans at the basket and getting the points when Estill goal-tended Wade’s reverse layup. It was the nation’s first real sneak preview of Wade’s unique skill set — his incredible change-of-pace dribbling, long strides to the hoop and creativity around the rim.

By the end of the first half, Wade had recorded 11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. Wade knocked knees with Bogans on Marquette’s first possession after halftime, but showed he was alright a few minutes later on a reverse dunk off a beautiful lead pass from Diener.

Wade’s transcendence was official when he scored 11 straight points to give the Golden Eagles an insurmountable 72-54 lead. First, he was fouled by Estill on a fast-break dunk, then he hit a dagger three-pointer. That was followed by a baseline dunk and then another three-point play that fouled out Hayes.

The triple-double was sealed a few minutes later on an inside feed to Robert Jackson, whose monster game of 24 points and 15 rebounds was obscured by Wade’s artistry. Wade left the game to a raucous ovation after recording 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, joining Magic Johnson and Andre Miller as the only players to notch a triple-double in the NCAA tournament. Wade’s performance also lifted Marquette to its first Final Four since Al McGuire’s championship run in 1977.

Wade was a known entity after that game against Kentucky. He became the first Marquette player to be a first-team All-American since Butch Lee in 1978. Miami Heat president Pat Riley, a Kentucky standout from 1963-’67, was watching Wade’s triple-double from a Stairmaster in, interestingly enough, Milwaukee. That game confirmed Riley’s notion that the Heat had to get Wade if the Marquette star was available in the draft.

As luck would have it, the Heat grabbed Wade with the fifth pick a few months later. Guessing where he is playing next season is a mug’s game at this point, but Wade’s rise to the upper echelon of NBA stars has been jaw-dropping.

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