College basketball announcer and reporter
It was a 40 degree day, late October in Milwaukee. Inside Marquette University’s Al McGuire Center, there was an anticipatory silence before afternoon practice. Suddenly, the gym door swung open and 5-foot-8 Shaka Smart walked into the facility, whistling around his neck.
Seconds later, the atmosphere made a 180-degree turn. The Smart players came to the facility with purpose and speed, and warmed up at an intense rate as applause filled the room. There were words and messages posted on the walls of the gym – “Connected,” “relations.” These words became the subject of practice, which Smart paused from time to time to gain points.
“It was everything we could have hoped for and more,” said Marquette Athletic Director Bill Scholl when asked about Smart. “Xhaka has this authentic nature that sets him apart. It matches our identity as a department and a sporting programme, it really does. There’s a comfort level with the whole situation.”
It was easy to see this season with the Golden Eagles, who were considered an afterthought by other coaches and the media. Big East coaches selected Marquette 9th out of 11 in the league’s preseason poll, with the consensus being that Smart’s team would take a step back after losing scorers Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell. In addition, Smart and his staff did not create a transfer portal during the holiday season, nor did they bring in an employee to change the program.
But while there was a lot of uncertainty floating around in the preseason, Smart, who was in his sophomore year at the helm in Milwaukee, had his returning players inside the training facility. In this particular session, he put together a movie of his team in training earlier in the week. The series of clips showed great plays, as well as the movement of the ball that led to the baskets. Smart asked his players what they see on the screen, and teased those who didn’t always get credit for key passes and rebounds that led to great shots.
“At the end of the day guys, it’s not about who shines individually,” says Smart. “It’s about us, and only us — everyone is part of our program and support staff. What happens outside those doors, what other people say or write about you, they all have a job to do. But at the end of the day, what is said or written about you? It doesn’t matter. We are in control of who we end up being this year. It’s in our hands. It’s about us. And the more we realize that, the better we’ll be.”
This whole mindset resonates, and Marquette Feel Like Marquette again. There is a real identity and unselfishness about the Golden Eagles, creating a greater sum of parts formula that has led Smart’s team to 14 victories in its first 19 games and a 6-2 start to Big East play.
Smart-Marquette marriage is the natural solution at the perfect time.
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The 45-year-old Golden Eagles coach has moved back to his hometown of Wisconsin. He grew up in Madison, just 80 miles west of Milwaukee. Those in Smart’s circle believe that the journey back to his roots allowed the best version of himself to emerge. After becoming world-famous in 2011 in leading Virginia Commonwealth University from the Top Four to the Final Four, Smart’s stardom and success led him to the Texas job in 2015. He made the NCAA Tournament three times in six seasons, but never won a tournament game.
“Shaka Smart is a great guy and a top coach,” said a University of Texas official. “We’ve got a lot of use with him here, and he couldn’t have been more fun to work with. But sometimes, just because a coach and program have had previous success, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the best. There have been good moments in his tenure, but we haven’t We can win when it matters most. There was something missing from us taking the next step when he was here, and we’ve never been able to get over that hurdle.”
While Texas is a top 10 brand in college basketball and one of the best in the country, winning the season standard with five-star recruits and making deep runs is no easy feat, especially in today’s climate.
At Marquette, though, Smart has a team that fully reflects its identity. He doesn’t have to try to be someone he’s not, and that authenticity just shows on the ground. The Golden Eagles have been a surprise national hit 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 are 14-5, have three four wins, no four losses and have a net rating of 18.
The formula behind Marquette’s success begins with one of the best offenses in the country. Smart and his staff have developed a team that ranks second in the country in KenPom’s modified offensive efficiency. It wasn’t a quick transfer or recruitment that changed the team’s appearance. Instead, it was about player development and team participation.
“We went to a retreat as a team in late October,” Smart said. “We tried to get away for a few days and spend some time together. I was really impressed by what our guys were saying when we all sat down to talk about the season. We were frank and talked about the role each youngster needs to play. We spent a lot of time defining each player’s roles, and these were the players, And they did 98% of the talking.
“And then we looked at what were the threats to our season, and what could stand in the way of us from being successful. I think it was the willingness that our guys had to talk about those honest topics that set the tone for our season.”
Defining roles has paid off. Cam Jones is the unquestionable kick-maker. Tyler Kulick is one of the best point guards and assist leaders in the country. Olivier Maxence-Prosper and David Joplin provide versatile play forward, both bringing their games to average by double digits. Stevie Mitchell is the team’s defensive stopper, while class rookies from Shawn Jones, Chase Ross and Ben Gould add depth off the bench.
Stevie Mitchell drops 19 points against Villanova
The Marquette Golden Eagles have received contributions from all members of their roster this season.
All of these contributions center on one key Marquette principle: EGBs – energy-giving behaviors.
“For us, EGBs are everything,” said Prosper. “How do you raise the level of the team? How do you help your teammate? It’s something we think about constantly. We need those to win.”
The Golden Eagles thrive on these behaviors, and according to Prosper, this team has noticed not a single player getting the entire preseason recognition.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone outside of us says,” said Prosper. “It’s about what we believe in in our locker room. We didn’t think we finished ninth in the Big East. We felt like the best team in the conference. That’s all that matters. There’s still a need to play games. We can beat any team in the East.” Great “.
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Besides how well this team is doing, there is a factor that goes beyond basketball with Marquette’s turnaround as a program. It feels authentic, and that goes back to Smart, who’s so invested in the relationships.
“It depends on me being raised by a single mother, and I think my coaches are the best and the best,” said Smart. “Growing up, to me, my coaches were 10 feet tall. The relationship I had with them and my teammates was incredibly strong.
“One of my best coaching experiences was when I was the video maker in Dayton. That means I spent 8-10 hours a day studying and breaking down teams. One of the things I saw was talent and schema matter, but relationship matters more than anything else. I could see Some teams liked playing together, some didn’t. That was a problem for me. So, that’s the number one feature for us: relationships.”
“The thing about Coach Smart is that he keeps it real and genuinely cares about who you are,” Jones, the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer, said in a preseason chat. “That’s something that interests me and the rest of the players that we have. When you have a coach that invests in you, it makes you want to keep challenging.”
It’s been a promising start to Marquette’s season, but everyone around the show understands that the biggest task at hand is for the show to validate everything that’s going on. The Golden Eagles haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 10 years. Last season initially looked like it was going to be the season that clears the drought, but Marquette slowed down, lost six of its last nine games, and capped it off with a 32-point victory over North Carolina in the first round of the tournament. .
“We were pretty much aiming for the spring of looking, ‘Why aren’t we doing our best?'” said smart. “We weren’t the same version of ourselves last year. We won eight out of nine, then went 3-6 to close. We spent a lot of time talking to our players last spring about teams. We wrote a bunch of that stuff, and I’m glad we did.” We’ll be pulling that out later this year.”
While we can only wait until March if both Smart and the Golden Eagles can secure their first championship wins since 2013, one thing is certain: Marquette now has a man to match his identity, who has been on the big stage before and, more importantly, , relieved there.
“About 10 years ago, Buzz Williams partnered Marquette for three straight Sweet 16 appearances,” Smart said. “These were races, seven wins combined. Those results were a byproduct of the relationships in their team, the way they grew and became better together, and their genuine dedication that leads to winning.
“Could this happen at Marquette today? Absolutely, and it will happen again. I’m old enough now as a coach to know it’s about who you work for and with every day to win.” ..
“I quickly realized I wouldn’t be trading 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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