NEW YORK – Forty-two minutes remained on the countdown clock before the game, and inside Madison Square Garden there was chaos with more or less nobody. It didn’t have much to do with Mary J. Blige blaring over the sound system, although it helped: Everyone on the floor for Marquette’s men’s basketball program was talking or yelling during warmups. Each of them makes loud noises. It seemed the Queen of R&B’s order to keep things percolatin’ was to encourage them to turn up the noise even more.
“Clear the way!” Zach Wrightsil howled, an injured senior wearing a leg brace who nonetheless cheered every one of his teammates’ dunks, including Olivier-Maxence Prosper’s gnarly windmill. Not far away, the person most responsible for this scene was chatting with the Fox TV announcers and smiling. No one needed a head coach at the combine to understand what or how to do it. Shaka Smart turned the volume all the way up on Marquette and the button stuck.
By the end of Friday night’s game, the program had a 70-68 victory over UConn and its first appearance in the Big East tournament final. The universe had yet another reminder of what can happen when you find the perfect combination.
Two years ago, Smart semi-surprised everyone by leaving Texas for Marquette, and it’s amazing how ideally it turned out. There really isn’t a classier way to say it. There is good, and there is flawless. Right down to the last one. Maybe Smart needed the spot more than the spot needed him because the way he coaches actually works in Milwaukee, but that’s semantics now. It’s a lease that, as it stands now, is the pinnacle of getting everything right. Every school will want to build their own version of Marquette by hiring Smart.
“Not every player is a good fit for every school,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in the gym’s hallway late Friday night. “Not every coach is good. Not every administrator is suitable. But boy, I think in this particular case his value system and Marquette’s value system match up so well. What he wants to accomplish and how he wants to do it is exactly how Marquette would want it done.”
This is not happening. Not regularly. Schools hire coaches and things work out … but exactly how everyone would want them to? And that in less than two years? “They got a chance to be a Final Four team this year,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “Or better.” This is an incredible reality to contemplate, but it is reality. Smart’s way works here, perhaps better than anywhere else. Add in the abundant resources that Marquette pours into its basketball programs and the ceiling drops.
Friday was not validation. Just one last example.
Smart wants his teams to enjoy it. And there were Marquette rookies Kam Jones and Stevie Mitchell, seconds before tip-off on the most important game of the season so far, doing a TikTok dance inspired by something Rhianna did during the Super Bowl halftime show. “We know it’s important to have fun,” Mitchell said. “We know that’s when we are the best. When we’re having fun in training, that’s when we’re at our best. When we’re having fun playing games, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Smart wants his teams to bond through combat. That is why the same message was written on two large dry-erase boards in the dressing room before the game: “One for the other.” PASSION. 40 minutes.”
The Golden Eagles’ ball pressure put the Huskies on their heels early – Hurley’s words. When foul trouble forced Marquette into some pretty hairy lineup combinations that produced horrendous offensive possessions down the stretch, those groups played equally filthy defense to keep the entire operation from falling apart. “I looked out and we’ve got a bunch of freshmen and sophomores fighting, fighting, scratching for their lives,” Smart said. “These guys didn’t even blink. They were lost in battle all night. It was fun to watch.”
Smart wants his teams to believe. It only happens properly when the coach does it first and is determined in that belief. Jones, for example, missed 12 of his 16 shots the night before against St. John’s. He missed the first two on Friday. His third, a three-pointer, fell. As the sophomore guard made his way back to the defensive end, he turned to his right and saw his coach about five feet away on the floor, crouching, reaching out for Jones to give him a big slap. Later, as the shot clock wound down and UConn made a second-half surge, Jones took a desperate shot from Queens. He pierced it. Perhaps the biggest shot of the night.
Asked after the game if he hoped to get in, Jones said no. He said he knew going in. “Knowing that a guy like (Smart) has your back, what more could you ask for?” Jones said. “I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than this.”
Feelings only go so far, of course. Being a tactically savvy coach is also a requirement, especially in this league. And there was Marquette, ready to make a basic play out of bounds with 40 seconds left in the first half. Holders Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro were on the bench with two fouls each. Smart turned around and sent both of them to the scorer’s table. They checked in, ran the game, and Jones drove off for a bucket. Smart jumped into the official line and called a timeout. Then he safely returned two of his starters to the bench.
Neither Kolek nor Ighodaro scored. But these are two good players who have to be counted on and who otherwise might not be on the floor. Coach Marquette somehow stole two points.
And so we redirect you to that final score: 70-68.
The text arrived earlier this week from someone who is, shall we say, interested in Marquette men’s basketball. He highlighted the combined winning percentage of a head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University and his current station, and the number of times those teams won 25 or more games. Framed, of course, as a stat to use when writing about Smart for National Coach of the Year.
Conspicuously absent were the Austin years.
But again, that’s the point.
No one thinks about how long this will work. Smart is doing as well at Marquette as anyone could have imagined.
He was in his element Friday, to be sure, obsessed with a very pro-UConn crowd, obsessed with the assumption that UConn would win in front of that crowd, and then jumped in the air and threw a punch as UConn’s final shot fell. Smart dropped to a crouch and screamed. As loud as you want.
“I want to say this in the most respectful way possible,” Smart said from the podium in the interview room, “but it seemed like a lot of people were giving UConn the edge. There were comments about who owned the Garden and things like that. And we said, wait a minute – we won this league. So we don’t put anyone in the backseat.
“You can say that, but then going and doing it is another thing. And you know it’s going to be hard. You know it will come down to the last minute or even the last second of the game. Is. It was just a delight that our guys were able to do what we said we were going to do.”
Smart has Marquette right where he wants him, but, incredibly, the lifestyle and ideal way everyone wants these employees to go. Although he noted that the only thing better than playing on Friday night in the Big East Tournament is doing it again on Saturday.
(Top photo by Marquette’s Kam Jones: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)