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

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

Updated Jan. 18, 2023 1:42 p.m. ET

It was a 40-degree, late-October day in Milwaukee. Inside the Al McGuire Center at Marquette University, an anticipatory silence held sway ahead of afternoon practice. Suddenly, the door to the gym swung open and 5-foot-8 Shaka Smart walked into the facility, his whistle laced around his neck. 

Seconds later, the atmosphere took a 180-degree turn. Smart’s players came into the facility with purpose and pace, going through warmups at an intense rate as clapping filled the room. There were words and messages posted on the walls of the gym — "connected," "relationships." Those words became the theme of the practice, which Smart paused from time to time to get points across.

"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 athletic department and program, it really does. There’s a comfort level with the entire situation."

That’s been easy to see this season with the Golden Eagles, who were deemed preseason afterthoughts by both other coaches and the media. The Big East coaches picked Marquette ninth out of 11 in the league’s preseason poll, with the consensus being that Smart’s team would take a step back after losing top scorers Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell. Additionally, Smart and his staff did not make a transfer portal splash over the offseason, nor did they bring in a program-changing recruit.


But while a lot of preseason doubt was going on, Smart, who’s in his second year at the helm in Milwaukee, had his returning players inside the practice facility. At this particular session, he put on film of his team at practice from earlier in the week. The series of clips showed great plays, as well as ball movement that led to baskets. Smart asked his players what they are seeing on the screen, and brought up those who weren’t always getting credit for the key passes and rebounds that led to great shots.

"At the end of the day guys, it’s not about who individually is getting the shine," Smart says. "It’s about us, and only us — everybody that’s part of our program and support staff. What happens outside these doors, what other people are saying about you or writing about you, they all have a job to do. But at the end of the day, what is said or written about you? That does not 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 are going to become."

That whole mentality has reverberated, and Marquette feels like Marquette again. There’s a real identity and unselfishness about the Golden Eagles, creating a sum-greater-than-parts formula that has led Smart’s team to 14 wins in their first 19 games and a 6-2 start to Big East play. 

The Smart-Marquette marriage is the 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 allowed for the best version of himself to come out. After becoming world-famous in 2011 in leading VCU from the First Four to the Final Four, Smart’s stardom and success led him to 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 high-level coach," a University of Texas administrator said. "We thought highly of him here, and he could not have been more enjoyable to work with. But sometimes, just because a coach and a program have both had previous success, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best fit. There were good moments in his tenure, but we could never win when it mattered most. Something was missing from us taking the next step when he was here, and we could never get over that hurdle."

While Texas is a top-10 brand 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 deep tournament runs is no easy undertaking, especially in today’s climate.

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

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

"We went on a retreat as a team in late 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 were saying when we all sat down to talk about the season. We were candid and talked about what role each guy needed to play. We spent a ton of time laying out each guys’ roles, and this was the players. They did 98% of the talking.

"We then looked at what were the threats of our season, and what could get in our way from having success. I think the willingness our guys had to talk about those honest topics set a tone to our season." 

The definition of roles has paid off. Kam Jones is the team’s unquestionable shot-maker. Tyler Kolek is one of the nation’s best point guards and assist leaders. Olivier Maxence-Prosper and David Joplin supply versatile, stretch-forward play, as both have elevated their games to average in double-figures. Stevie Mitchell is the team’s defensive stopper, while the freshman class of Sean Jones, Chase Ross and Ben Gold have added depth off the bench.  

Stevie Mitchell drops 19 points on Villanova

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

All of these contributions are centered on one main principle at Marquette: EGBs — energy-giving behaviors. 

"For us, EGBs are everything," Prosper said. "How can you bring the level of the team up? How can you help your teammate? It’s something we are constantly thinking about. We need those to win."

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

"It doesn’t matter what anybody says outside of us," Prosper said. "It’s about what we believe inside our locker room. We didn’t believe we were ninth in the Big East. We felt we’re the best team in the conference. That’s all that matters. The games still need to be played. We can beat any team in the Big East."

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

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

"One of my best experiences in coaching was when I was the video guy at Dayton. That meant that I spent 8-10 hours a day studying teams and breaking them down. One of the things I saw was that talent and scheme matters, but the relationship matters more than anything. I’d see some teams who liked playing together, and others who didn’t. That was a problem for me. So, that’s the No. 1 advantage for us: relationships."

"The thing about Coach Smart is, he keeps it real and genuinely cares about who you are," said Jones, the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer, in a preseason conversation. "That’s something that matters to me and the rest of the guys we have. When you have a coach who’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 biggest task at hand is for the program to validate everything happening. The Golden Eagles have not won an NCAA Tournament game in 10 years. Last season appeared at first as though it would be the one to lift the drought, but Marquette sputtered down the stretch, losing six of its final nine games, capped off with a 32-point drubbing to North Carolina in the first round of the tournament.

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

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

"About 10 years ago, Buzz Williams at Marquette went on a run of three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances," Smart said. "Those were runs, a combined seven wins. Those runs were a byproduct of the relationships on their team, the way they grew and got better together, and their true dedication that goes into winning.

"Can it happen at Marquette today? Absolutely, and it will happen again. I’m old enough now as a coach to know that it comes down to who you’re working for and with every day to make winning happen. Between our president Mike Lovell and athletic director Bill Scholl, and this community …

"I’ve quickly realized I wouldn’t trade being here for the world."

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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