MILWAUKEE (AP) — As they walk along the hallway leading up to the men’s basketball office each day, Marquette’s players can stare at the walls and see photographs celebrating the greatest teams in program history.
The last team featured is the squad that won a share of the Big East title and reached a regional final in 2013. Marquette hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since, which helps explain why this series of photos ends with a white space including nothing but a Marquette logo.
“The purpose of that is, ‘Hey, that can be our team if we’re willing to do all the things that go into being a special team,’ “ Marquette coach Shaka Smart said.
This year’s Marquette team is eager to fill that spot.
Picked to finish ninth out of 11 Big East teams in a preseason poll of the league’s coaches, Marquette (16-5, 8-2 Big East) is tied for second and just a game behind No. 13 Xavier (17-4, 9-1). The 16th-ranked Golden Eagles visit DePaul (9-12, 3-7) on Saturday.
“If you’re basing your motivation on where other people pick you or what other people say about you, then it’s going to continue to be up and down,” Smart said. “Now we are still playing against those very same coaches that picked us ninth. For guys that want to use that, fine. It’s the very same coaches that didn’t pick one guy on our team to the preseason all-Big East team. If you want to use that as motivation, fine.
“But to me, what’s more important is to have the drive inside of you that’s, regardless of circumstances, based on relationships you have with teammates, the way that you feel about your program, the way that you feel about the ownership that you take over your team and program, and then just going out there and doing what it takes to win.”
Smart built his reputation on the “Havoc” defense that enabled VCU to press its way to a Final Four appearance in 2011. His Marquette squad is winning with a ruthlessly effective offense.
Marquette leads the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, a metric measured by college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy that essentially translates to points scored per 100 possessions when adjusted for the level of competition. The Golden Eagles are making a remarkable 60.6% of their two-point shot attempts.
The Golden Eagles share the ball so well that five of them are scoring at least 9.7 points per game: Kam Jones (16.4), Olivier-Maxence Prosper (12.2), Tyler Kolek (10.1) and David Joplin (9.7).
“We have genuine love for each other, genuine relationships,” Jones said. “We love to see each other succeed. There’s no jealousy within the team. That just brings us closer together and helps us play better as a team.”
Marquette also boasts one of the nation’s top distributors in Kolek. In his second season at Marquette, the George Mason transfer ranks third among all Division I players in assists per game (7.9) and second in assist-turnover ratio (3.44).
“He’s the best quarterback in college basketball,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said after his team lost 82-76 at Marquette on Jan. 12.
Kolek wants to make sure the Golden Eagles maintain their momentum and learn from last season.
One year ago, Marquette was 16-7 after beating No. 12 Villanova on Feb. 2, capping a six-game stretch in which it went 5-1 while facing five ranked teams. The Golden Eagles went 3-6 the rest of the way and got trounced 95-63 by eventual runner-up North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We kind of lost our edge,” Kolek recalled.
Marquette’s tradition of late-season slides preceded Smart’s arrival. Marquette has posted a combined 17-24 post-January record over the last four seasons and hasn’t gone above .500 after January since 2017-18.
When he took over before the 2021-22 season, Smart did some redecorating in hopes it might produce more team success. The walls near the office had honored Marquette’s individual record holders before Smart decided instead to salute top teams.
“What we want to have portrayed for our guys to see every day when they walk in the office, we want them to see winning,” Smart said. “We want them to see relationships. We want them to see growth.”
Now they’re intent on making themselves one of those teams. They got even more motivation last week when Marquette honored the school’s 2003 Final Four team during halftime of a victory over Providence.
“We want to be that team that gets honored the same way they are and remembered like they are,” Kolek said.
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