Shaka Smart and Marquette: The perfect fit at the perfect time

It was a 40 degree day in late October in Milwaukee. Inside Marquette University’s Al McGuire Center, an anticipatory hush reigned before the afternoon practice. Suddenly, the door to the gym opened and the 5-foot-8 Shaka Smart walked into the facility, his whistle strapped around his neck.

Seconds later, the atmosphere did a 180-degree turn. Smart’s players entered the facility with purpose and rhythm, going through warm-ups at an intense pace as applause filled the room. There were words and messages posted on the walls of the gym: “connected,” “relationships”. Those words became the theme of practice, which Smart would occasionally pause for points.

“He’s been everything we could have hoped for and more,” Marquette athletic director Bill Scholl said when asked about Smart. “Shaka has this genuine nature about him that sticks out. It matches who we are as an athletics department and program, it really does. There’s a comfort level with the whole situation.”

That’s been easy to see this season with the Golden Eagles, who were considered the backs in the preseason by other coaches and the media alike. Big East coaches picked Marquette ninth of 11 in the league’s preseason poll, with the consensus that Smart’s team would take a step back after losing leading scorers Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell. In addition, Smart and his staff did not make any transfer portals during the offseason, nor did they bring in any recruits to change the program.

But while there were plenty of preseason doubts, Smart, who is in his second year at the helm in Milwaukee, had his players returning to the practice facility. In this particular session, he put up film of his team in practice from earlier in the week. The series of clips featured big plays as well as ball movement leading to baskets. Smart asked his players what they saw on the screen and brought up those who didn’t always get credit for the key passes and rebounds that led to big shots.

“At the end of the day, guys, it’s not about who individually gets the shine,” says Smart. “It’s about us, and us alone, everyone in our program and support staff. What happens outside these doors, what other people say or write about you, they all have a job to do. But in at the end of the day, what is said or written about you? That doesn’t matter. We control who we end up being this year. It’s in our hands. It’s about us. The more we realize that, the better we’ll be.”

That whole mentality has resonated, and Marquette It’s heard like Marquette again. There’s a real identity and unselfishness about the Golden Eagles, creating a bigger-than-parts formula that has led Smart’s team to 14 wins in its first 19 games and a 6-2 start to the Big East.

The Smart-Marquette marriage is a natural fit at the perfect time.

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The 45-year-old Golden Eagles head coach has returned to his home state of Wisconsin. He grew up in Madison, just 80 miles west of Milwaukee. Those in Smart’s circle believe that a trip back to his roots has brought out the best version of himself. After becoming world famous in 2011 as VCU’s leader from the top four to the finals, Smart’s stardom and success landed him the Texas job in 2015. His Longhorns made three NCAA tournament appearances in six seasons, but never won a tournament game.

“Shaka Smart is a great man and a top-level coach,” said a University of Texas administrator. “We thought a lot of him here, and he couldn’t have been more enjoyable to work with. But sometimes, just because a coach and program has had previous success, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the best. We’ve had some good times in his tenure.” , but we could never win when it mattered most. We were missing something to take the next step when he was here, and we could never overcome that hurdle.”

While Texas is one of the top 10 brands in college basketball and one of the best jobs in the country, the standard of winning the offseason with five-star recruits and also making big tournament runs is no easy feat, especially in the current climate.

At Marquette, however, Smart has a team that fully reflects his identity. He doesn’t have to try to be someone he’s not, and that authenticity shows on the floor. The Golden Eagles have been a national surprise in back-to-back seasons. They made the NCAA Tournament in Smart’s first season, highlighted by a seven-game Big East winning streak. This season, the Golden Eagles have gone 14-5, have three wins in quad-one, have zero losses in quad-three or quad-four and have an 18 NET ranking.

The formula behind Marquette’s success starts with one of the best offenses in the country. Smart and his staff have developed a team that ranks second in the nation in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency. It has not been any transfer or recruit that has changed the make-up of the team. Rather, it has been about player development and collective bonding.

“We went on a retreat as a team at the end of October,” Smart said. “We tried to go away for a few days and spend some time together. I was really impressed with what our guys said when we sat down to talk about the season. We were honest and talked about what role each guy should play. We spent a plenty of time explaining each guy’s roles, and those were the players, who did 98% of the talking.

“Then we looked at what the threats were to our season and what could prevent us from being successful. I think the willingness of our guys to talk about those honest issues set the tone for our season.”

The definition of roles has paid off. Kam Jones is the team’s unquestioned shot maker. Tyler Kolek is one of the best point guards and assists leaders in the country. Olivier Maxence-Prosper and David Joplin offer versatile forward play as both have raised their games to double-digit averages. Stevie Mitchell is the team’s defensive shortstop, while the freshman class of Sean Jones, Chase Ross and Ben Gold have added depth off the bench.

Stevie Mitchell drops 19 points on Vilanova

Stevie Mitchell drops 19 points on Vilanova

The Marquette Golden Eagles have received contributions from their entire roster this season.

All of these contributions focus on one core principle at Marquette: EGBs: Energizing Behaviors.

“For us, EGBs are everything,” Prosper said. “How can you raise the level of the team? How can you help your teammate? It’s something we’re constantly thinking about. We need them to win.”

The Golden Eagles feed off of those behaviors, and according to Prosper, this team pointed to the lack of a single player earning preseason all-conference recognition.

“It doesn’t matter what anyone says outside of us,” Prosper said. “It’s about what we believe in our locker room. We don’t believe we’re ninth in the Big East. We feel like the best team in the conference. That’s all that matters. There are still games to be played. We can beat any team in the Great East”.

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Beyond how well this team has played, there is a factor that goes beyond basketball with Marquette’s transformation as a program. It feels authentic, and that goes back to Smart being so invested in relationships.

“It’s based on being raised by a single mom, and me thinking that my coaches were the be-all and end-all,” Smart said. “Growing up, for me, my coaches were 10 feet tall. The relationship I had with them and my teammates was incredibly powerful.

“One of my best coaching experiences was when I was the video guy at Dayton. That meant spending 8-10 hours a day studying teams and breaking them down. One of the things I saw was that talent and scheme are important, but the relationship matters more than anything. I’d see some teams that liked playing together, and some that didn’t. That was a problem for me. So that’s the ‘advantage number 1 for us: relationships’.

“The thing about Coach Smart is he keeps it real and he really cares about who you are,” Jones, the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer, said in a preseason conversation. “That’s something that matters to me and the rest of the guys we have. When you have a coach that’s invested in you, it makes you want to keep taking on the challenge.”

It’s been a promising start to the season for Marquette, but everyone around the program understands that the most important task is for the program to validate everything that’s going on. The Golden Eagles haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 10 years. Last season looked early on as if it would break the drought, but Marquette sputtered down the stretch, losing six of its last nine games, ending with a 32-point rout of North Carolina in the first round of the tournament .

“We were pretty intentional in the spring about looking, why didn’t we do our best down the stretch?” Smart said. “We weren’t the same version of ourselves last year. We won eight of nine, then went 3-6. We spent a lot of time talking to our players last spring about what the difference was. We wrote a a lot of that stuff, and I’m glad I did it. We’ll get it out later this year.”

While we can only wait and see until March if both Smart and the Golden Eagles can get their first tournament win since 2013, one thing is certain: Marquette now has a man who fits its identity , who has been on the big stage before and, most importantly, is comfortable there.

“About 10 years ago, Buzz Williams at Marquette went on a streak of three straight Sweet 16 appearances,” Smart said. “They were hits, seven wins combined. Those runs were a byproduct of their team relationships, the way they grew and improved together, and their true dedication to winning.

“Can it happen today at Marquette? Absolutely, and it will happen again. I’m old enough as a coach now to know that it depends on who you work for and who you work with every day to get the win. Between our president Mike Lovell and manager sportsman Bill Scholl, and this community…

“I quickly realized that I wouldn’t change being here for the world.”

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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