A Painful Finish To a Senior Season

By John Feinstein
Saturday, February 26, 2005

There just aren't that many top college basketball players who stick around for their senior seasons anymore. Most take the NBA plunge the minute someone tells them the water's warm and the money is hot. On those rare occasions when someone stays, he becomes an almost heroic figure in the college game just for doing so. To this day, people still talk about Tim Duncan's senior season at Wake Forest in reverent tones.

Travis Diener isn't Tim Duncan. But he is a very good college player, a slender, 6-foot-1 point guard with great shooting range and the ability to get and make shots at crucial moments. He came back to Marquette for his senior year because he had hopes the Golden Eagles might make an NCAA tournament run similar to the one they made two years ago, when Diener and his teammates shocked the basketball world by making the Final Four with an upset string that included a regional final victory over a Kentucky team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation. There was one other reason he came back: to get his degree in communications.

He will get the degree in May. There will be no run in March.

A career such as Travis Diener's should end in an NCAA tournament. It should end only after he gets to hear the cheers on Senior Night. It should end with hugs and handshakes on the court and, perhaps, with one last memorable moment.

It should not end in an empty gym in the middle of practice because of a fluke accident. It should not end with a doctor saying, "Travis, I'm sorry, you've got fractures in two fingers that are going to need surgery. I don't think you'll play again this season."

"The only good thing," Diener said Thursday afternoon a few hours before Marquette lost to Cincinnati in its first game in the post-Diener era, "was that I was in so much pain that it didn't really hit me right then. I was thinking, 'Let's just do this surgery and get it over with.' "

When he first looked at his hand after using it to break a fall in practice Tuesday, he knew he had a problem. "It was a non-contact drill and I just slipped," he said. "Instinctively, I reached down with my [left] hand. When I looked at it, I could see that two of the fingers [the fourth and the fifth] were, at the very least, badly dislocated."

Calmly, he showed Coach Tom Crean what had happened. Like Diener, Crean had hoped this season could be a repeat of 2003, when his team came from virtually nowhere to reach its first Final Four since 1977, when Al McGuire coached the school to its only national championship in his coaching farewell. The building where Marquette was practicing is named for McGuire and Crean has produced the team's best years since McGuire departed. When he looked at Diener's hand, remembering how the Golden Eagles had played during a three-game stretch a month ago when Diener was out with a stress fracture in his foot, Crean had a sinking feeling. "Go see the trainer right away," he told his captain.

It happened fast after that. From trainer to doctor's office to hospital to waking up to realize he had played his last game in a Marquette uniform. Diener had been convinced his team was going to make a late run to an NCAA tournament berth. The Golden Eagles had just beaten DePaul--led by Diener's cousin, Drake Diener--and with three games left stood 18-8. Even with the loss to Cincinnati on Thursday, victories at home this coming week against Houston and St. Louis would have meant a 20-9 finish and, at the very least, a chance to play their way into the field of 65 in the Conference USA tournament.

"When it first happened, I could see that it didn't look good, but it didn't hurt that much for the first 20 minutes," Diener remembered. "I thought maybe it wasn't that bad. By the time I got to the doctor, the pain was very bad. I was guessing by then that I was in trouble.

"What hurts is that we were really starting to play well. We lost to Louisville after dominating them the whole game [up 11 with five minutes to play before falling apart and losing by three] and then beat DePaul. I think since I came back from those three games, the other guys have been playing better than I've ever seen them play. We had the chemistry and the closeness that we had in '03. Not the same talent. We didn't have anyone like D [Dwyane] Wade, but we had the attitude that can take a team a long way in March."

Now, there's no March for Diener, who was averaging 19.7 points and 7.0 assists per game, and, in all likelihood, no tournament for Marquette. The tournament committee takes into account key injuries--the two losses Marquette suffered when Diener was out because of the foot injury wouldn't have hurt Marquette too significantly; his absence now will.

"I'm trying to take the approach that all things happen for a reason," Diener said. "But it's hard. I guess I can work on trying to put on some weight, and I know I'm lucky the injury isn't that serious [he should be playing again in six weeks] and I still have a great future ahead of me in basketball. I've tried to focus on that. Right now though, it isn't easy."

Predictably, NBA scouts have mixed feelings about Diener. What they see is a skinny kid, whose body may have trouble taking the pounding of the pro game. What they don't see is a gym rat with a heart that has carried him to a level of stardom well beyond where his physical gifts alone would get him.

All Diener ever wanted to do was play basketball. As a kid in Fond du Lac, Wis., he played in his basement when the weather was really bad and in his driveway when it was good, or at least not snowing. He and Drake grew up as best friends, playing together constantly. Drake's dad, Dick, coached both boys at Fond du Lac with Travis's dad, Bob, in the stands for every game.

"My dad has always loved basketball," Travis said. "For as long as I can remember, he wanted me to be a basketball player."

He became a very good one and was lured by Crean's enthusiasm to Marquette. As a sophomore, he lived a dream, making big shots throughout Marquette's tournament run that ended in a blowout loss to Kansas in the Final Four.

"That game was disappointing, but just to play in the Final Four, to walk on the practice court on Friday and see thousands of people there to watch practice, to realize you're part of something that millions of people want to watch, it was unreal," he said. "If you play basketball, you dream about that happening and it did for us. It takes some hard work, and it takes luck and that year we had both."

Not this year. Hard work, yes, but not luck. Diener has had nagging injuries all season and was playing even though his foot hadn't completely healed. He was 83 points shy of George Thompson's Marquette career record of 1,773 points (set in 1969) when he was hurt, a record he certainly would have broken if he hadn't, instead, broken his hand.

"That's not what bothers me," he said. "What's going to hurt is having to watch from the bench. Senior night will be really tough. My family will all be there, and I know it will be nice. But it won't be the same being out there with my roommate [Travis Townsend] and know he's going to play and I'm going to be watching in street clothes."

Maybe Marquette will put Diener in uniform that night. He won't be able to play, but at least he would be wearing the clothes he feels best in. He deserves that. What he didn't deserve was an abrupt end to a distinguished college career. And yet, he is trying to look at the bright side.

"A lot of people in the world have problems a lot more serious than this," he said. "This isn't the ending to my college career I planned or wished for, but worse things have happened to people. I've got great memories and, I hope, I have a great future."

Of that there is little doubt.

Marquette point guard Travis Diener, averaging 19.7 points and 7 assists, broke his hand in practice on Tuesday.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company