Men’s basketball looking at players to step into bigger roles ahead of new season

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Photo by Alex DeBuhr

Marquette men’s basketball in a huddle during its 75-64 win over then-No. 20 Xavier Jan. 23.

Despite its early first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament to North Carolina, the Marquette men’s basketball team exceeded expectations and showed promising momentum last season under first-year head coach Shaka Smart.

Heading into next season, questions arise around the Golden Eagles but one might overshadow the others.

Marquette loses 56% of its scoring from last season with Justin Lewis opting to remain in the NBA Draft, graduate students Darryl Morsell and Kur Kuath graduating and Greg Elliott transferring to Pittsburgh for his fifth year of eligibility.

So which of the seven players that got experience along with the four newcomers — Ben Gold, Sean Jones, Chase Ross and Zach Wrightsil —  will fill those shoes?

Here are some takeaways and updates from Smart’s media availability July 15.

Next Man-Up:

Smart seemed pleased with what he has seen from his core of young players that return from last year’s 19-13 overall, 11-8 BIG EAST finish. With the young core along with the newcomers, Smart said he is eager to puzzle together the skill sets of his new squad.

“This past year we got the vast majority of our underclassmen back,” Smart said Wednesday. “I’m excited about the three (first-years) we have coming in and about the guys who were (first-years) last year that are now sophomores.”

Among the new players coming in is NAIA National Player of the Year Zach Wrightsil.

“He’s a national player of the year but he is focused on ‘how can I help my team win’ and ‘how can I connect with my coaches and teammates’,” Smart said. “You’re talking about a guy basketball-wise that can do a lot of things; guard a lot of positions, rebound, he’s strong and athletic … We felt like his sturdiness and his toughness would be something that can really help our team from day one.”

For Smart, all but three members of his 15 player bench last year were either first-year or redshirt first-year players along with upper-level students that served as walk-ons. 

It’s common to see young players, such as Marquette’s, to experience a roller coaster of highs and lows across the season.

Kam Jones, who earned All-BIG EAST Freshman Team honors, looked like the confident scoring option. Stevie Mitchell and David Joplin showed promise off the bench along with Emarion Ellis, who looks to contribute more in his second year. The coaching staff speaks highly on Keeyan Itejere, who redshirted last season, and his ability to impact the game with his size. 

Most Improved Candidates:

Smart focused on three returning members from last season who have already stepped into a new role of not just leading the offense but also the team’s newcomers: Tyler Kolek, Oso Ighodaro and Olivier-Maxence Prosper.

Smart said Prosper and Ighodaro have stood out so far from off-season practices and expects both to take a significant leap in their games next season. 

Prosper saw time in and out of the starting lineup last season but served as a viable wing threat on both ends of the floor. 

“I think that any time a player has been in a significant role and then they come back to the same place and the same team … that’s huge,” Smart said. 

The Montreal native, finished fifth on the team in scoring (6.6) and tied for fifth in rebounding (3.3) last season. Smart said that Prosper has worked on continuing to build on his game.

“(He has to) continue pressing his advantages. He’s got a lot of things he does well as a player and we’ve got to start and lead with those,” Smart said. There’s a lot of areas he wants to continue to grow and develop and be more assertive… It’s about work and continued strengthening of connections with his teams … He’s one of our older players in terms of experience. We need him to take a step in connections, relationships and leadership.”

As for Ighodaro, the 6-foot-9 forward showed flashes of potential as Kuath’s back-up for much of last season. He averaged 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.

Smart said Ighodaro has already made “giant leaps” in his game since last season.

“Oso had the best spring out of any player on the team. We see him as a guy who’s ready to emerge into a full-time starting role,” Smart said. “He’s got a lot of strengths as a player and (is) a phenomenal passer and ball handler (for his size). You’re going to see him do exciting things for us at that positions that most guys at that position don’t get to do.”

As for starting point guard, Tyler Kolek, who led the BIG EAST in assists (5.7), Smart said he has been “working like crazy” this offseason, especially on his shooting.

“He takes it personally that a lot of people outside of the program maligned him for his shooting last year because he’s a really good shooter,” Smart said. “He was asked to do a lot last year and I think his other responsibilities probably affected him shooting-wise, but you watch, he’s going to make major improvements there.”

Justin Lewis’ Departure

Lewis is coming off a breakout redshirt first-year season with the Golden Eagles, averaging a team-high 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds earning the BIG EAST Most Improved Player of the Year.

“(Justin Lewis) is on a great trajectory right now. If you look at what he did his sophomore year compared to his (first year), it’s incredible,” Smart said. “I told him that he’s in a no-lose situation. I told him either one of these situations, going or coming back, if you stay on the same trajectory that you’re on, you’re going to be highly successful.”

The NBA Draft is set for next Thursday, June 23, at 7 p.m. CT at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Dwyane Wade:

Former Marquette men’s basketball star guard Dwyane Wade served as Marquette’s 2022 commencement speaker last month.

“The way that he connected with the students and the message that he gave and how he talked about being the dream with all moments on the journey (to success) that really was emotional for me to hear from him because I remember as an opposing coach when he was a player here,” Smart said.

During Wade’s visit back to Milwaukee, he made a major gift to the university’s Ralph C. Hartman Literacy and Learning Center to extend his Live to Dream Summer Reading Program through 2025. Additionally, he renamed the summer program after his sister, Tragil Wade-Johnson.

“The way he was when he came back here, if I had to describe it in one word, I would say appreciation,” Smart said. “The appreciativeness he had for Marquette and you could see it when he came back and you kind of see him going back in time and remembering, ‘hey, this is what it was like when I was on campus’. I got a chance to be there when he rededicated the learning center to his sister. You can tell it meant something to him.”

Smart said with the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Final Four team coming up, the program is planning on celebrating the team at some point this season.

This article was written by Andrew Amouzou. He can be reached at andrew.amouzou@marquette.edu or on Twitter @AndrewAmouzou.