Marquette will play for the Big East title on Saturday. The reason starts with Shaka Smart

NEW YORK – 42 minutes left on the countdown clock before the game, and it was bustling inside Madison Square Garden with almost no one in attendance. This had little to do with Mary J. Blige blasting over the sound system, though it did help: Everyone on the floor in Marquette’s men’s basketball program was talking, or yelling, during the warm-up. Each of them makes a loud noise. And apparently directing the R&B queen to get Percolatin’ material prompted them to make the noise louder.

“Clear the way!” Zach Wrightsell, an injured senior wearing a leg brace, howled, however, and their fans snubbed every teammate sailing for a dunk, including Olivier Maxence Prosper Mill. Not far away, the person most responsible for this scene spoke to the Fox TV announcers and smiled. Nobody needs the master trainer in the mix to understand what to do or how to do it. Shaka Smart turned the volume all the way up in the Marquette, and the button stuck.

By the end of Friday night’s game, the program had a 70-68 victory over UConn and its first-ever appearance in the Big East tournament final. The universe was another reminder of what can happen when you find the perfect fit.

Two years ago, Smart surprised everyone by leaving Texas for Marquette, and it’s amazing how perfectly things worked out. There really isn’t a fancier way of saying that. There is good, and there is flawless. Every last bit, he drops in line. Maybe Smart needed the spot more than he needed the spot because the way he coaches really works in Milwaukee, but those are indications for now. Hiring it, as it is, is the pinnacle of doing it right. Each school will want to do its own version of the Marquette Smart recruitment.

“Not every player is a good fit for every school,” Athletic Director Bill Scholl said in the arena’s hallway late Friday night. “Not every coach is a good fit. Not every administrator is a good fit. But, boy, I think in this particular case, his value system and Marquette’s value system are a good fit. What he wants to achieve, and how he wants to do it, is exactly how Marquette wants to do it.” it is being done “.

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This does not happen. Not regularly. Schools are hiring coaches and things are going well…but how exactly will everyone want to? And in less than two years? “They got a chance to be a Final Four team this year,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “or better.” This is an incredible fact to ponder, but it is the truth. The Smart method works here, perhaps better than it can do anywhere else. Add in the abundant resources that Marquette pours into his basketball programs, and you get the roof off.

Friday was not validated. Just the latest example.

Coach Shaka Smart is a sophomore at Marquette but it’s already clear that this was the right move for him after Texas. (Brad Penner/USA Today)

Smart wants his teams to be happy with this. And there were Marquette’s freshmen, Kam Jones and Stevie Mitchell, seconds before the most important game tip of the season so far, as they performed a TikTok dance inspired by something Rhianna did during the Super Bowl halftime show. “We know it’s important to have fun,” Mitchell said. “We know it’s when we’re at our best. When we’re having fun in practice, 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 communicate through combat. That’s why two large dry-erase boards in the locker room display the same message before the game: “For each other. Passion. 40 minutes.”

The Eagles’ golden ball pressure put the mummy on their heels early — Hurley’s words. When egregious problems forced Marquette into some combos of hairy formations that produced horrible offensive possessions down the stretch, those combos played equally dismal defense to prevent the entire operation from falling apart. “I looked outside, and we got a bunch of freshmen and sophomores out there fighting and fighting and scratching their lives,” Smart said. “These guys didn’t blink. They were lost in the fight all night. It was fun to watch.”

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Smart wants his teams to believe. It only happens in any real way when the coach does it first and is firm in that belief. Jones, for example, missed 12 of his 16 shots prior to one night against St. John’s. He missed the first two on Friday. He got off his third pointer, a 3-pointer. When the sophomore guard fell back to the defensive end, he turned to his right to see his coach about five feet on the ground, in the bend, reached out for Jones to give him a big slap. Later, with the shot clock approaching and UConn running up the second half, Jones kicked a desperate Queens shot. dig it up Probably the biggest shot of the night.

When asked after the match if he hoped to get into it, Jones went nowhere. He said he knew she would come in. “Knowing a guy like (clever) has your back, what more could you want?” Jones said. “I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than this.”

Feelings only go away, of course. Being a tactically intelligent coach is also a requirement, especially in this league. And there was Marquette, ready to run a base game out of bounds with 40 seconds left in the first half. Supporters Tyler Kulick and Oso Igodaro were benched with two fouls each. It was cleverly moved to send both of them into the scorer’s table. They check in, run the play, and Jones heads out for the bucket drive. Smart jumped into the administrator’s line of sight and called a timeout. He then returned two of his starters safely to the bench.

Neither Kulik nor Igodaro scored. But they are both good players to reckon with and might not have been on the floor otherwise. Marquette coach, somehow, stole a couple of points.

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And so we redirect you to the final score: 70-68.

The text message arrived earlier this week from someone with, let’s say, a vested interest in Marquette men’s basketball. He highlighted the coach’s combined winning percentage at VCU and his current station, and the number of times those teams have won 25 games or more. Framed, of course, as a stat to use when writing about Smart for National Coach of the Year.

Conspicuously missing the intervening years in Austin.

But, again, that’s kind of the point.

Nobody thinks how long this will work. Smart at Marquette does better than anyone can imagine.

He was indulging in his element on Friday, sure, surrounded by a very pro-UConn crowd, surrounded by the assumption that UConn was going to win in front of that crowd, then jumped up in the air and threw his fist where UConn’s last shot fell short. Smart landed in a crouch and let out a shriek. as loud as you like.

“I want to say this as respectfully as possible,” Smart said from the interview room podium, but felt like a lot of people were giving UConn the next game. There have been comments about who owns the park and that sort of thing. And we said, wait a minute – we won the league. So we don’t take a back seat to anyone.

“And you can say that, but it’s another thing to go and do it. And you know it’s going to be tough. You know it’s going to come down to the last minute or even the last second of the game. I did. So it was just a joy because our guys were able to do what we said we were going to do.” .

Smart has Marquette right where it wants it, already, remarkably, a living and breathing example of the way everyone wants those employees to go. Although he notes that the only thing better than playing Friday night in the Big East tournament is doing it again on Saturday.

(Top photo of Marquette’s Cam Jones: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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