Marquette Golden Eagles head coach Shaka Smart was once the toast of the town in Richmond, Virginia, where he led the VCU Rams to the 2011 Final Four. Smart’s run there was nothing short of magical, and it helped propel him into the head coach position at Texas. Smart, now a brand name in the game with NCAA Tournament cachet, had moderate success in Austin, winning the 2021 Big 12 Tournament championship.
He left for Marquette following an upset loss to Abilene Christian in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The offer was too good to refuse. A Madison, Wisconsin, native with an opportunity to coach in his home state was too good to pass up.
Smart is also very savvy with his career moves. He had to know how impatient the Longhorns brass had grown with his lack of tournament success. He was lauded as somewhat of a savior when he arrived in Texas, which has become a hotbed for recruiting elite hoops talent, but he didn’t have the immediate tournament success, so he abandoned ship before they did him dirty in the same fashion they did former head football coach Charlie Strong. Marquette is in a rebuilding process and the project to help the program regain its prominence is exactly what Smart prides himself in; taking teams and rebuilding them. That’s exactly what he’s done in less than two full seasons with the Golden Eagles.
Shaka Smart Has Rebuilt Marquette Program
In his second season, Smart is the favorite to win Big East Coach of the Year, and his best player, Tyler Kolek, is the odds-on-favorite to win conference player of the year. The two have led the Golden Eagles to a 23-6 record and 15-3 in Big East play. Currently ranked No. 6 in the country, they’re slated as a No. 3 seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament. All this in less than 24 months is what Smart does, and he has a formula.
Smart’s Coaching Style Is Infectious
A disciple of former Florida two-time national championship-winning coach Billy Donovan, Smart coaches a style that is high-energy, getting up and down the court with speed and energy. The style is known as “havoc,” which focuses on heavy full court pressure, traps, double-teams to force turnovers, which allows his team to get out and push the tempo.
You remember Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell? Well, Smart has the post-millennial version.
Like the truly great coaches of any era, Smart has also been lauded for his ability to connect to his players, building strong relationships that extend beyond the hardwood. That’s been evident all season with his surprising Golden Eagles squad.
The team struggled in its latest win over a feisty DePaul squad, but a total team effort prevented a letdown, and Smart put the win into perspective for reporters in his postgame presser.
“We want to be a team who’s greater than the sum of our parts. The way to make the whole greater is for the parts to pour into each other and for them to help maximize each other.”
That resonates with the entire team, but point guard Tyler Kolek reinforces what Smart is saying as an extension of him on the floor.
Who Is Tyler Kolek?
Kolek, the Providence, Rhode Island, native, is a player who wasn’t highly recruited out of high school. He played his freshman season at George Mason, earning Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year honors. He transferred into Marquette right when Smart was hired, giving Smart his floor general. And while he was solid his sophomore season, he’s turned himself into a Player of the Year candidate this season.
His campaign was on full display as Kolek led the Golden Eagles with 22 points and 14 assists against Depaul. He scored or assisted on 57 of the team’s 90 points. The rangy 6-foot-3 sophomore is averaging 12.7 points and a Big East-best 7.8 assists per game. Kolek brings an edge to the court, and he has no intentions of sharing a Big East title. He wants his guys to handle business and win it outright. He mentioned that after the gritty win over DePaul on Saturday.
“We don’t want to share the Big East regular season title. We want to put our stamp and really win the league. … I think the scene will be different when we actually do that.”
With a two-game lead with only two games to play, one win gives Smart and his guys an outright Big East regular season title. Not bad for a team picked to finish ninth in the preseason, but that’s what Shaka Smart does, always more with less.