NEW YORK — Forty-two minutes remained on the pregame countdown, and it was rowdy inside Madison Square Garden with more or less no one around. It had little to do with Mary J. Blige blowing up the audio system, though it helped: Everyone on the floor for Marquette’s men’s basketball program was talking or shouting during warmups. . Each of them, making loud noises. And the Queen of R&B’s directive to percolate things seemed to spur them on to make even more noise.
“Clear the way! Zach Wrightsil yelled, an injured senior wearing a leg brace who nevertheless fanboyed every teammate sailing for a dunk, to Olivier-Maxence Prosper’s gnarly windmill. Not far away, the person most responsible for this scene chatted with Fox TV announcers and smiled. No one needed the head coach in the mix to figure out what to do or how to do it. Shaka Smart turned the volume all the way up at Marquette, and the button stuck.
By the end of Friday night’s game, the program had earned a 70-68 win over UConn and its first-ever appearance in the Big East Tournament Finals. The universe had another reminder of what can happen when you find the perfect fit.
Two years ago, Smart half-surprised everyone by moving from Texas to Marquette, and it’s amazing how ideally it worked out. There really isn’t a more sophisticated way to put it. There is good, and there is impeccable. Every last bit, falling in line. Smart might have needed the place more than the place needed him because the way he coaches works in Milwaukee, but that’s semantics now. It’s a hire that, as things stand, is the high point for getting it right. Each school will want to do their own version of Marquette hiring Smart.
“Not every player is a good fit for every school,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in an arena hallway late Friday night. “Not all coaches are suitable. Not all administrators are suitable. But, boy, I think in this particular case, his value system and Marquette’s value system fit so well. What he wants to accomplish, and how he wants to do it, is exactly what Marquette would like done.
It doesn’t happen. Not regularly. Schools hire coaches and things work out…but just the way everyone would want? And in less than two years? “They were lucky to make the Final Four this year,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “Or better.” It is an incredible reality to contemplate, but it is the reality. Smart’s method works here, perhaps better than anywhere else. Add in the bountiful resources Marquette pours into its basketball programs, and the ceiling drops.
Friday was not a validation. Just the last example.
Smart wants its teams to rejoice. And there were Marquette starters Kam Jones and Stevie Mitchell, seconds before the start of the most important game of the season yet, performing a TikTok dance inspired by something Rhianna did during the mid-show. Super Bowl time. “We know it’s important to have fun,” Mitchell said. “We know that’s when we’re at our best. When we’re having fun in training, that’s when we’re at our best. When we’re having fun in games, that’s when we’re at our best.
Smart wants his teams to connect throughout the fight. That’s why the two large dry-erase boards in the locker room bore the same message before the game: “For each other. PASSION. 40 minutes.
The Golden Eagles’ ball pressure quickly put the Huskies on their heels – Hurley’s words. When foul trouble forced Marquette into some pretty hairy range combinations that produced terrible offensive possessions down the stretch, those groups played equally grimy defense to keep the whole operation from falling apart. “I looked outside, and we had a bunch of freshmen and sophomores fighting, fighting, scratching for their lives,” Smart said. “These guys didn’t blink. They were lost in combat all night. It was a ton of fun to watch.
Smart wants its teams to believe in it. It only really happens when the coach does it first and is resolute in that faith. Jones, for his part, missed 12 of his 16 shots a night earlier against St. John’s. He missed his first two on Friday. His third, a 3-pointer, fell. As the second-year guard backpedaled toward the defensive end, he turned to his right to see his coach about five feet on the ground, crouched down, reaching out for Jones to hit with a big slap. Later, as the shot clock ticked down and UConn surged in the second half, Jones fired a desperate Queens shot. He drilled it. Perhaps the biggest hit of the night.
When asked after the game if he hoped he would come in, Jones said no. He said he knew it was going to come in. “Knowing that a guy like (Smart) has your back, what more do you want?” said Jones. “I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than this.”
Feelings don’t go far, of course. Being a tactically savvy coach is also a requirement, especially in this league. And there was Marquette, about to run a base game out of bounds with 40 seconds left in the first half. Props Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro were on the bench with two fouls each. Smart turned to send the two to the scorer’s table. They checked in, ran the game, and Jones went for a bucket. Smart jumped into the crosshairs of an official and called a timeout. He then returned two of his starters safely to the bench.
Neither Kolek nor Ighodaro scored. But they are two good players who have to be taken into account and who might not have been on the pitch otherwise. Marquette’s coach kind of stole two points.
And so we redirect you to this final score: 70-68.
The text message arrived earlier this week from someone with, say, a vested interest in Marquette’s men’s basketball. He highlighted the head coach’s combined winning percentage at Virginia Commonwealth University and his current stoppage, and how many times those teams have won 25 or more games. Framed, naturally, as a statistic to use when writing Smart for National Coach of the Year.
The middle years in Austin were conspicuously absent.
But then again, that’s kind of the point.
Nobody thinks how long it will work. Smart at Marquette works as well as anyone could have imagined.
He was immersed in his element on Friday, of course, mobbed by a very pro-UConn crowd, mobbed by the assumption that UConn would win in front of that crowd, then leaping in the air and throwing a fist as the final kick ‘UConn failed. Smart landed in a crouch and let out a cry. Strong as you wish.
“I mean that in the most respectful way possible,” Smart said from the dais in the interview room, “but I felt like a lot of people were giving the game to UConn. comments about the owner of the garden and that kind of stuff. And we said, wait a minute – we’ve won this league. So we won’t give in to anybody.
“And you can say that, but then going and doing it is another thing. And you know it’s gonna be hard. You know it’s going to be played out at the last minute or even the last second of the game. It made. So it was just joy that our guys got to go do what we said we would do.
Smart has Marquette right where he wants it, already, remarkably, a living, breathing ideal of how everyone wants these hires to go. Although he noted that the only thing better than playing Friday night in the Big East tournament is doing it again on Saturday.
(Top photo by Kam Jones of Marquette: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)