Today turned into the longest wait Kentucky Wildcats fans can remember. Yet they wonder if the wait will be long enough for Keith Bogans to get relief from his badly sprained left ankle so that he can play -- or play effectively -- Saturday afternoon when the Wildcats have to risk their 26-game winning streak, a trip to the Final Four and hopes of winning a national championship against an exceedingly hot Marquette team.
"It's a game-time decision," Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith said as doctors and trainers worked feverishly on the team's senior leader after he collided with Wisconsin's Kirk Penney late in the first half Thursday night, forcing him to the bench for the entire second half. Marquis Estill's career-high 28 points and Chuck Hayes's second-half defensive job on Penney managed to lift the Wildcats to a 63-57 victory and a spot in the Midwest Region final.
But whether the Wildcats could do it again without Bogans is the question of this regional. Marquette, the Conference USA regular season champion, is clicking with its dynamic pro prospect, 6-foot-5 junior Dwyane Wade, back-court partner Travis Diener, and tough 6-10 contributors Robert Jackson and Scott Merritt. The Golden Eagles have been a team working together so well that it will require a similar effort from an opponent to shut them down.
"[Keith] is getting treatment around the clock," Smith said. "It's a high ankle sprain, so that can be a real bad, bad thing. He was able to put pressure on his foot, raise up on his toes, so that was a good sign. He's still in discomfort, but not much pain."
Bogans echoed Smith's assessment.
"If it was up to me, I'd play," he said. "But it's a game-time decision."
Bogans limped into the Metrodome this afternoon with his teammates, but skipped practice for more treatment. Smith said Cliff Hawkins would play if or when Bogans couldn't. But because Bogans, the senior from DeMatha who leads the Wildcats in scoring, steals and assists, team partisans are skeptical that Kentucky can win without him.
"I think he will go as long as he can," Hawkins said. "He will not be 100 percent, but he will give us what he can."
"If Keith doesn't play, we just have to keep our heads up and move on," Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch said.
"I think we have to totally prepare like he's going to play," Marquette Coach Tom Crean said. "I think every time in my four years as a head coach when there's been a question mark on a player who can break the game open, especially like a Keith Bogans can, you prepare like he's going to be there. More importantly, you can't get away from the fact that they have a very, very good team on the floor at all times. They have as deep a bench as any team in college basketball right now.
"But you can definitely see a difference in Keith Bogans's game. He's as efficient a guard as there is in the country right now."
Wade, the Conference USA player of the year, is the key for Marquette (26-5), its scoring leader with a 21.5-point average. The shots he made in the second half of the Golden Eagles' 77-74 victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday night could make an entire highlight reel. He made one shot when being fouled and driven to the floor to the right of the basket with the ball below his waist, yet somehow lifting the shot high in the air and through the net.
"That was a little bit of luck," Wade said. "I can't say I practiced that."
Kentucky's Hayes was expecting to be assigned to guard Wade, but Hayes quickly added, "I'm going to need help from my teammates. I need to guard him with my best effort."
Marquette's Jackson, who played three seasons for Mississippi State and is rugged under the boards, will defend Estill.
"Kentucky is one of the best schools and traditions ever," said Diener, a deadly outside shooter. "Where they are right now and where we are right now, it's a big step for us. We're just going to lay it all on the line."
Crean said he liked his players' "confidence."
"If you don't believe you belong in a game like this against a team as good as Kentucky, then there's no sense in playing it," he said. "But our players have responded all year long to challenges. We know we're going to have to play a very good basketball game to win this game.
"We've got to handle their pressure. We've got to get back on defense, because their break can be incredible. We've got to be able to defend in the half court. They put a lot of players on the floor. Their passing is exceptional. They deserve every bit of respect they receive. So what they've done belongs in the tradition of great college basketball teams. But we can't play like that matters at all."