Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Marquette’s loss of itself in fight continues to yield quietly confident, connected winners

At 12-4 and 4-1 in Big East, Marquette's rise may be surprising to some, but inside program, it’s right in line with Golden Eagles’ expectations. (Photo by Marquette Athletics)

NEW YORK — In some ways, Marquette was thought of as something of an enigma entering head coach Shaka Smart’s second season in Milwaukee.

Even with the majority of its rotation returning to a team that surprised many with its NCAA Tournament appearance, insiders and critics alike deemed the departure of Justin Lewis, and graduations of both Kur Kuath and Darryl Morsell, as hurdles difficult to overcome in a Big East Conference whose landscape at the top changed with Creighton’s incumbent talent holding a decided edge over Villanova following the retirement of Jay Wright. The majority of Smart’s coaching brethren agreed, placing Marquette ninth in the Big East preseason poll, ahead of only perennial cellar-dwellers DePaul and Georgetown.

Fast forward three months, and the Golden Eagles have once again silenced the crowd of cynics with a start to the season that has, in many ways, mirrored the beginning from 12 months prior. The attention-grabbing resume win (Illinois last year, a commanding 26-point rout of Baylor this past November) remains present, the player development and enhancement of guards that Smart perfected at VCU has paid huge dividends for each of his five leading scorers, and most notably, the confidence he exudes on an everyday basis has taken root and manifested in each member of the roster as Marquette — now 12-4 and 4-1 in conference play after scoring 96 points Tuesday against St. John’s for its sixth win in seven contests — continues to embrace Smart’s mantra of getting lost in the fight.

“I knew we were capable of playing like we’re playing right now,” Olivier-Maxence Prosper proclaimed after erupting for 29 points against a Red Storm team who squandered a fourth consecutive first-half lead amid a litany of defensive breakdowns and lack of adjustments off which Marquette was more than happy to capitalize, proudly heralding his team’s connectivity in the process. “We never come into the season thinking, ‘oh, we’re not gonna start well, whatever.’ We feel like we’re the best team in the Big East, and we’re not surprised by the way we’re playing right now because of who we are, the way we’ve trained, the way we’ve practiced in the offseason, in the summer. It’s all building up to now.”

“We don’t really have a schedule,” Smart added, deviating from the canned coachspeak usually imparted at this level for a deeper, more profound and introspective look at how he has molded this particular group. “We just try to grow as much as anyone in the country from the start of the year to the end. If we had a schedule, it would be win every game and just be perfect, but that’s not how the world works, that’s not how the games work. I think the connectivity that O-Max mentioned is — most of the time — really, really good on our team, and it’s our No. 1 advantage.”

“For the most part this season, most of our games, we’ve done a nice job of that and that’s why we’ve maybe won more games than a lot of people thought we should have. They know that we can, and need to be, better in order to win on the road in this league. You could see on the defensive end, there’s a different look in the guys’ eyes.”

While defense will always be central to the ethos of Smart and his concepts, it is Marquette's exploits on the other side of the basketball that have actually taken on a life of their own this year. The Golden Eagles have the sixth-best offense in the nation per KenPom, and the most efficient in the Big East, due in large part to the vision and ability of point guard Tyler Kolek to create efficient shot opportunities for his teammates, namely Prosper and Kam Jones — the latter of whom leads the team in scoring at just over 16 points per game — but also the rapidly maturing Oso Ighodaro and David Joplin. In Tuesday's win over St. John’s, Marquette posted a scorching 1.26 points per possession, a figure that was even higher over the final 20 minutes at 1.49. Jones and Prosper have received the majority of accolades for the resurgence due to their enhanced scoring presence, but Smart made it a point to credit his floor general, a quality some of his best teams over the years have always possessed, be it Darius Theus, Briante Weber, or JeQuan Lewis, just to name a few.

“Honestly, it’s more the other way around,” Smart said. “Every other guy on the team should thank Tyler for opening up options for them. But certainly, it is reciprocal. It’s something that, for us as we continue to evolve as a team, if we can understand when those opportunities are as a team, we can be even better.”

“All of our guys have made good strides from last year, really other than Tyler, and even Tyler to some extent. Everyone’s taken on just an enhanced role compared to where they were last year. David Joplin, I mean, there’s still so much that he could do and grow. He’s a young puppy out there, but he’s gaining confidence, he can put the ball in the basket for us, he’s getting better at times defending and rebounding. But him and Kam Jones, these guys are young pups, they’ve just got to keep growing and developing. I can’t wait to see those guys as grown men, because they’re going to be sturdier, tougher, and more consistent.”

What stands out this season with the Golden Eagles is their resilient nature and refusal to be counted out of any game. Trailing through most of Tuesday's first half after an uncharacteristically efficient shooting performance by St. John’s, Marquette turned the tables after the intermission in the form of a 16-2 run that flipped the game on its head and placed Mike Anderson’s Red Storm squad on its heels. The Johnnies became disjointed and as Marquette got in transition, the change in tenor could be attributed to two words: Answer back.

“I got that from Fred Hoiberg three, four years ago,” Smart revealed. “I love that mentality. When they score, answer back.”

“That’s how we want to play,” Prosper echoed, fully buying into the quick-strike mentality. “We don’t want to be like, all down (because) they made a shot, they made a dunk. We want to be like, ‘okay, next play, go fast.’”

Halfway through the season, and after the first quarter of Big East play, Marquette is firmly in control of its postseason destiny, something that appeared uncertain to some at the start of the year. But when asked if he and his teammates may have overachieved a year ahead of expectations, Prosper immediately dismissed such a notion, explaining that the want to win is actually more of a desperation of sorts for the Golden Eagles.

“The biggest key for us is we’re trying to go 1-0 every game,” he said. “We don’t care about what we did, we don’t care about the next two games. We basically stay desperate. We won (Tuesday), it doesn’t matter. We’re going to be desperate against Georgetown in a couple of days. It doesn’t matter what happened, if we win or lose. We’re still going to be desperate, and you can’t get comfortable.”

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