Smart Era Begins

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Photo by Collin Nawrocki

Men’s basketball head coach Shaka Smart looks from the sidelines during his team’s intrasquad scrimmage Oct. 31 at the Al McGuire Center.

“Lost in the Fight.” It’s one of several philosophies new head coach Shaka Smart is instilling in the Marquette men’s basketball program. It embodies what Smart is all about and trying to build as he enters his first year with the Golden Eagles. 

The era began March 29, 2021, the day Vice President and Director of Athletics Bill Scholl named Smart the program’s 18th head coach. 

March 29 served as a historic day for Marquette University and Marquette Athletics. Smart’s hire marked the start of the first African American men’s basketball head coach in program history. 

I take a lot of responsibility and pride in being the first Black head coach here, especially because this is Doc (Rivers’) school,” Smart said during his introductory press conference. “If I’m the 18th head basketball coach at Marquette, hopefully down the road, there’s another Black coach not just at Marquette, but around the country.”

Smart’s head coaching career began in 2009 when he won 27 games with the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams. Smart’s tenure at VCU is historically known for the 2010-11 season where the Rams advanced to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in program history as a No. 11 seed. 

While at VCU, Smart posted an overall record of 163-56. The 163 wins tied him for the second-highest number of total victories during the first six years of a head coaching career in NCAA history.

Smart’s next stop took him to the University of Texas. In six seasons with the Longhorns, he compiled an overall record of 109-86 and made three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. 

During the 2018-19 season, Smart led the Longhorns to a 21-16 mark and a NIT Championship Title. 

Smart inherits a Marquette roster that lost all five of its starters and returns only three players from last season. The team now has to replace Theo John, D.J. Carton, Jamal Cain, Koby McEwen and Dawson Garcia who all combined to score 1,450 of Marquette’s 1,883 points last year.

Marquette’s roster featured 10 newcomers, including six first-years and four transfers. A roster like this creates a challenge for the Madison, Wisconsin, native head coach. 

“I never started a season with this many new faces,” Smart said. “It’s just going to take some time to build the connectivity that we need to have and that’s even with our coaching staff, the guys we’re coaching and obviously the guys with each other.” 

One of Marquette’s transfers is graduate student guard Darryl Morsell. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year provides both a veteran and defensive identity to a young Golden Eagles team. 

“(He) provides us with experience, with toughness physically and mentally,” Smart said. “He’s a guy that understands, sometimes we’re gonna get down in the game and we have to fight and battle back. He just provides us with what you need from an older guy.” 

One of the biggest tests the Golden Eagles will have to face this season is finding a consistent option at point guard. Smart said the team is going to play multiple guards by committee but redshirt first-year guard Tyler Kolek has been the best all-around guard of the unit. 

“He’s just a very very hard working guy that holds himself to a high standard,” Smart said. “He’s a really good shooter but I tell you what he’s done probably better than shooting since we started practices is making plays for other guys creating for other guys.”

The BIG EAST Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranked Marquette ninth of 11 in the conference, after being picked sixth last season. 

Smart’s new colleagues in the BIG EAST said they are excited to have the 44-year-old head coach join the conference. 

“People in Milwaukee are really going to appreciate his style of basketball,” Providence men’s basketball head coach Ed Cooley said.” He’s someone that I’ve known for a long time, and really excited to play against his brand. And hopefully, just the two games will be horrendous when they (Marquette) play against the Friars.” 

Smart’s arrival to the BIG EAST will allow him to coach against close friends of his like Butler head coach Lavall Jordan and Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing. 

“He brings a lot to the BIG EAST in all the experiences he has had at all these places he’s been,” Ewing said. “He’s a great coach. We are going to have some great battles. Hopefully I kick his butt more than he does mine.” 

Jordan said his relationship with Smart goes back to their assistant coaching days when he was at Butler and Smart was at Akron. 

“I’m excited to have him in the conference,” Jordan said. “Obviously rooting for him outside of a couple of games a year as a friend, knowing that his teams are going to be tough and tenacious. That’s just who he’s always been and how his teams have played.” 

UConn head coach Dan Hurley competed against Smart when both were in the Atlantic-10 at Rhode Island and VCU respectively. 

Hurley said he thinks the world of Smart and his qualities makes him an “outstanding” coach. 

“He’s going to get that culture right where he wants it and pretty quickly they’re going to take on his personality and be one of the hardest played teams,” Hurley said. “They will play with tremendous energy and his addition to the BIG EAST and Marquette will strengthen this league and that’s exciting because we all want this to be as strong as possible.” 

While the other head coaches in the conference are excited about Smart’s addition, preparation for Marquette brings challenges. 

Like Hurley, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard has previously coached against Smart. Willard said though he has an understanding of what to expect, preparing for Smart’s defense is what he views as the biggest challenge. 

“His teams really push the pace,” Willard said. “The challenge of playing against Shaka’s teams is that the defensive intensity is unmatched. It is something we haven’t seen since Mike Anderson came into the league a couple years ago.” 

Villanova head coach Jay Wright and Smart have had their battles against each other throughout the years, including Wright’s Wildcats upsetting Smart’s Longhorns last season 68-64 when Texas was the No. 9 ranked team in the country. 

Wright said in both stops at VCU and Texas, Smart has been consistent and so has his teams. 

“They play really hard, they’re intelligent, they’re united and (do) a great job of creating a belief in the scene,” Wright said. “They were different kinds of players in both places but their characteristics were the same.” 

The key to success for Marquette this season will be how it establishes a reinvented culture implemented by Smart and building growth. 

“Our first year at Marquette, we’re working really hard to build our way, our culture, the way we act, the way we interact and respond,” Smart said. 

Despite not having a lot of adversity so far this season, Smart said the team has responded very well to the adversity they have had to deal with. 

“The next step is being able to respond well when there’s adversity that hits,” Smart said. “Whether it’s individual adversity, a bad game, not playing as much as you want, certain things not going your way or whether it’s team adversity.” 

At the end of his press conference following Marquette’s 98-40 exhibition win over Bowie State, Smart has standards for this season and playing in front of Marquette Nation. 

“We’re excited to see if we can just continue to build a group, a program, style of play and a spirit about us that people want to come back and watch. We know we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do with that, but hopefully tonight, the people that came to watch us got a chance to see a lot of spirit, enthusiasm and passion for winning  from our guys,” Smart said.

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.