Beasts of the (Big) East: Shaka Smart, Marquette poised for special season

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Marquette's Shaka Smart won the Associated Press Coach of the Year award last season. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Marquette’s Shaka Smart won the Associated Press Coach of the Year award last season. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Carmine’s is an Italian restaurant chain with roots in New York City. Its flagship can be found on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but there are locations in Times Square, Las Vegas, Washington D.C. and Atlantic City as well.

To begin to understand Shaka Smart’s bond with his players is to realize that there may be no better place in the Big Apple for the Marquette head coach to break bread with his team than the well-known, family-style establishment.

“To walk in [Madison Square Garden] with Tyler Kolek, Oso Ighodaro, Stevie Mitchell, Kam Jones and David Joplin, what more could a coach ask for?” Smart said at Big East Media day on Tuesday. “For me, there’s nothing better than to spend time around these guys. We have a shared purpose, a shared understanding, we care about the same things, we care about each other, we care about the rest of the guys on our team.”

Smart, last season’s AP Coach of the Year entering his third season at the helm of the Golden Eagles, didn’t mention a single stat, tactic or game plan for a good portion of the day on Tuesday when discussing his four returning upperclassman starters and Joplin, last year’s Big East Sixth Man of the Year and the likely replacement in the starting lineup for Olivier-Maxence Prosper, who went to the NBA after the 2022-23 season.

Instead he explained why Kolek is a “great leader” and was always a “safe bet,” praised Ighodaro and Mitchell’s intelligence and even joked about Jones’ outfit and Joplin’s (lack of) dunks last season. The bond, mutual respect and admiration Smart and his players have for one another shines through more than anything else.

“We’re all people,” Smart said. “The experiences that guys have are largely driven by relationships and relationships are largely driven by how we make each other feel. That’s something that we really put a lot of time and energy into at Marquette.”

Putting effort and time into those relationships is why, in an era of college sports where players are weaving in and out of the transfer portal like a New York City yellow taxi through traffic, Smart has been able to keep Marquette’s core intact, returning eight of nine starters, representing nearly 90% of last season’s offensive production.

“The secret is pouring into their growth and development and making sure their experience is second to none,” Smart said. “I think that goes hand-in-hand with doubling down on a rising sophomore last year like Stevie Mitchell, or Kam Jones instead of bringing in a grad transfer or someone over the top of them. Understanding that we believe in these guys. They were able to get their feet wet as freshmen and we believe they are going to take a big jump as sophomores, and they did.”

The investment in his players isn’t just for tangible results on the court, either. Smart has taken to giving each of his players journals and prompts. Smart admits he devises the prompts and that his favorite is “What are you grateful for?” It’s another example of the veteran head coach applying a life lesson of his to the young men he’s helping to mold.

“It’s something that I’ve done since I played in college and throughout my coaching career. It’s been incredibly beneficial for me, in more ways than one. So, hopefully it will start a habit and pattern with these guys. It’s a chance to get some thoughts out, maybe communicate with yourself a little bit in writing.”

Smart’s Golden Eagles were picked to finish atop the Big East in this year’s preseason coaches poll. It’s a far cry from a year ago where they were pegged to finish ninth out of 11 Big East teams.

Marquette cruised to a 29-7 record and secured both the regular season and conference tournament titles last season. Now, led by Kolek (12.9 ppg, 7.5 apg), a preseason All-American pick, the league’s reigning Player of the Year and Big East tournament’s most outstanding player, there are loftier goals.

Marquette's Tyler Kolek was named to the preseason AP All-America NCAA college basketball team. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Marquette’s Tyler Kolek was named to the preseason AP All-America NCAA college basketball team. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Despite the track record and clear change in measures of success, the players have adopted last season’s belief — or dismissal — of outside expectations.

“The outside noise, we try to keep that at a minimum for us,” Joplin said. “Last year, our goal was to just work as hard as we could every day and just let those days stack. It’s the same thing this year. Nothing’s really changed inside the locker room.”

Joplin’s response, measured amongst the hype for the top team in arguably the best basketball conference in the nation at the mecca of basketball is evidence of the environment Smart has fostered in just a handful of years at the school.

“Culture is the number one driver of anything that we do,” Smart said. “Our guys understanding and buying into how we act, interact and respond — that’s all culture is — is paramount. We walked in here today as six guys who have been together going on three years. There’s no substitute for that.”

Beyond the Big East, there’s real hype surrounding the Golden Eagles. Marquette’s No. 5 ranking in the AP’s first Top 25 poll of the season is the highest the program has been slotted since the 1977-78 season. Smart, looking to go 3-for-3 on NCAA tournament bids as the head coach, is looking to guide Marquette past March Madness’ opening weekend for the first time in more than a decade.

“I think the experiences that we’ve had, it makes these guys carry themselves a little bit differently,” Smart said. “Whether it’s winning or a tough loss like the Michigan State game (in the NCAA tournament), there’s a level of understanding that you gain from those experiences that these guys have that they didn’t have last year.”

For now, though, Smart, who said he planned to order eggplant, and his quintet of players are leaving New York with their plates — and bellies full.

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