Big East
Big East Final takeaways: Marquette rides talent, teamwork to crown
Big East

Big East Final takeaways: Marquette rides talent, teamwork to crown

Updated Mar. 11, 2023 11:09 p.m. ET

Back in the fall, Shaka Smart took his Marquette team on a retreat for a weekend. The goal: Establish roles and accountability for the 2022-23 edition of the Golden Eagles. 

On Saturday night inside Madison Square Garden, with 13 minutes left in the Big East Tournament Championship Game, the No. 6 team in the land used its hustle to produce three looks at the basket. On the third shot, Big East Sixth Man of the Year David Joplin swished home a triple and took a moment to flash a smile to the sea of blue and gold in the crowd.

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

Joplin, who has embodied the Golden Eagles' culture of embracing roles, had that ear-to-ear grin because Marquette was ahead of Xavier 54-27 with 13:18 left in regulation. 


The sacrifices made, and the culture instilled by second-year head coach Smart were all changes needed to address last season's 3-6 finish. All of that came to fruition in New York City on Saturday night.

Marquette had its crowning moment as a member of the Big East, earning its first tournament crown since joining the league in 2005 with an emphatic 65-51 win over the 15th-ranked Musketeers.

The Golden Eagles never trailed.

"Our guys played with real force to start, and that kind of allowed us to have the aggressiveness advantage in the first couple rounds of the game," Smart said. 

Marquette vs. Xavier highlights

Tyler Kolek scored 20 points to lead Marquette.

Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek was named Most Outstanding Player, capping off a run of 56 points, 21 rebounds and 13 assists over the three wins. Sophomore Kam Jones ended up with 11 points and four assists, but it was his and classmate Stevie Mitchell's defense that were the story.

That’s the larger takeaway from Marquette’s Big East championship victory: The Golden Eagles have the nation’s eighth-most efficient offense, but their defense won them the tournament. They held Xavier to its lowest point total of the season, 12 points fewer than the Musketeers’ next best scoring performance. 

"This is the best backcourt that I've ever coached," Smart said. "Normally, and you've got a great backcourt, you always have a chance to win. That's what's happened for us all year long."

"We played harder than them, honestly," Jones said. "We came out on defense with a lot of energy. "We wanted to win a championship. That's what it takes to win a championship to defend at a high level." 

Marquette hoists the trophy

The Golden Eagles celebrated after winning the Big East conference title. Tyler Kolek was also awarded Most Outstanding Player.

After a pair of two-point wins just to reach the Big East championship game, the Golden Eagles came out swinging on Saturday night, first with a 12-2 run that ballooned to 21-4. It led to Sean Miller taking two timeouts in the first 11 minutes of the game.

The Musketeers, who are a projected 4-seed in Mike DeCourcy's latest bracket forecast, saw Marquette's best on Saturday night as they fell to 25-9 on the year.

"They're an excellent team," Miller said. "Shaka, Big East coach of the year and what he's done in his brief time at Marquette, I really admire what he's done."

All Smart has done in two years at the helm is go 47-19 overall, 31-12 against league opponents, win Marquette's first outright regular-season championship in the conference and the program's first Big East Tournament title.

"Everything that we go through, whether it be the retreat that we went on before the season, all the workouts in the summer, he's preaching his culture," Kolek said. "He's showing his leadership every single day and just trying to impart that on us and kind of put it into our DNA because it's definitely in his DNA."

"I can't imagine it being better than with this man right here," added Jones, who originally committed to former head coach Steve Wojciechowski but stayed committed to Smart. "I'm grateful for him and everything he's done for me. I'm forever grateful for him."

Marquette's story is a zig to the zags happening in college basketball right now, where the transfer portal rules and highly-touted recruits are defined as necessary to win. The Golden Eagles didn't make one major offseason addition via the portal. They didn't bring in a game-changing class. They lost All-Big East selection and their most talented piece, Justin Lewis, to the pro ranks after last offseason.

And yet, the Golden Eagles are champions. Why? Because they just bought in to everything their coach has put down, not caring who gets the shine and really having the makeup of a throwback team. When he received his Big East Coach of the Year honor on Wednesday, Smart was apologetic to his players for the times they may not like him, but that he knew that they knew of his intentions. Those remarks were real. They were authentic.

That's because Smart relates to a group that was picked to finish ninth in the league preseason poll. He tied Al McGuire with the most single-season wins by a Marquette head coach in program history at 28, winning his fourth conference tournament championship in the process.

"For me, I was just a kid who played Division III basketball," Smart said with Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" playing inside the Garden. "To get this opportunity, to come to Marquette, part of this proud program and to be with this group of guys, and to win a championship at The Garden, there's nothing better."

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport 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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