Busting Brackets

Tyler Kolek and Marquette “not running from nightmares.” Shaka Smart’s Golden Eagles finally breaking through

Shaka Smart used to give major programs nightmares when they faced his VCU teams in March. Now, Shaka and his point guard are learning to win as the hunted, not the hunter, in the NCAA Tournament. Shaka and Marquette are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013.
Marquette Golden Eagles guard Tyler Kolek (11)
Marquette Golden Eagles guard Tyler Kolek (11) / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

For years, Shaka Smart was the hottest name in college basketball. A rising star at VCU who rode a 2011 Final Four run at VCU to national notoriety, and eventually to the had job at Texas at just 37 years old, replacing Rick Barnes at one of the biggest and most highly scrutinized programs in the country. 

Well, Smart’s six years in Austin ended with no NCAA Tournament wins and just three appearances after getting knocked off in 2021 by No. 14 seed Abilene Christian, on the other end of a Cinderella story getting its first Tournament win in program history. Smart was still a good coach, one of the best in the country, but he needed a better fit, and it’s clear now, he found it with Marquette. 

Smart’s first order of business once he arrived in Milwaukee was getting a point guard, and he chose to attach his personal career reclamation to Tyler Kolek, a transfer from George Mason. On Sunday in Indianapolis, after Smart finally got back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013 with an 81-77 win over Colorado, also ending Marquette’s drought of the same length, an emotional Smart praised his team’s leader.

“So grateful for our guys just hanging in there. There were so many moments that we could have cracked, been through a lot of adversity this year,” Smart told CBS’s Andy Katz on-court postgame standing next to his senior point guard, “Getting this guy back at the right time was perfect for us. He led the way and his belief and toughness really translated to the other guys.”

Kolek missed an opportunity to defend Marquette’s Big East Tournament title to start the month with an oblique injury. After his team fell to UConn at Madison Square Garden a week ago, Kolek bided his time to get healthy for the big dance and to exercise the demons of his first team years as a Golden Eagle. 

In 2022, Marquette fell to North Carolina in the first round, as a No. 9 seed, but last year was the real disappointment. As the Big East champs, Marquette came into the NCAA Tournament on the two-line but fell 69-60 in the second round to Michigan State. Kolek, a 2023 All-American, finished with seven points on 2-8 shooting with five assists and six turnovers. 

“We’ve been through a lot as a group together,” Smart said as reflected on his time at Marquette with the core of this 2024 team, Kolek, Kam Jones, Oso Ighodaro, David Joplin, Stevie Mitchell, and Chase Ross, in the postgame presser. 

Smart continued, “Really 90-some percent of the things we’ve been through have been very positive, but you tend to remember some of the hard times, as well. The loss to Michigan State, Tyler’s injury, Chase was banged up this year, all year long, Sean Jones tearing his ACL. We’ve had some adversity, but guys have never wavered in terms of their belief in our plan and our way.”

On Sunday, Kolek led the way for his team with 21 points on 10-14 from the field with 11 assists, his second straight double-double since his return from injury, and shared his late-game message to his team with Katz. 

“I told them in the huddle, I get the last word before we go back to the bench, ‘This is what has been in our nightmares. We just got to go out there and attack it. We are not running from our nightmares anymore.” A message that he later reprised at the postgame press conference, and seemingly a developing mantra for Marquette, one that’s fitting for its head coach. 

Smart was once lauded for his instant success at VCU. But, in the minds of many, 2011 has since been washed away in the torrent of misfortune and failure that has befallen him in college basketball’s most important month. For Kolek, those nightmares were last season's early exit. Smart's battle scars span the eight seasons since leaving the mid-major haven where he made his bones. 

It’s taken time for Smart to learn how to win as the hunted, not the hunter. As he so often was at VCU, giving the head coach on the other side the nightmare of losing to a mid-major team on the big stage. It seems that he’s finally figuring it out and just in time to face an upstart NC State team that advanced to the Sweet 16 as a bid-stealing 11 seed, the same seed-line Smart was on at VCU for his Cinderella Final Four run. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a player like Kolek on his side. 

On Sunday, the 6-foot-3 Rhode Island native operated Marquette’s offense with astounding precision, his team shooting 61.8% from the field and averaging 1.130 points per possession, up from the season average of 1.105 which ranked 37th nationally. He regularly sliced through the Colorado defense, exploiting angles and space like a senior who has played 119 career collegiate games, many at an All-American level. 

And executing his lethal pick-and-roll combination with Ighodaro, both potential first-round NBA draft picks this summer. Though this dynamic duo has a lot more to accomplish before heading for the next level.

Kolek like his coach, has learned how to perform with expectations, as an All-American and the top name on the opposition's scouting report. It’s fitting that Kolek’s career began at George Mason, a program that shares a conference with VCU and one that could never shake the Cinderella moniker, disappearing obscurity. Something that Smart was in danger of before landing on his feet in Milwaukee, and something he has certainly avoided with his renaissance.

Though before Marquette looks to build for the future and Kolek transitions to the NBA, this team’s mission is far from accomplished. Smart put it best, “I don’t want this season to end.”

With a wide-open South Region, in a week’s time, Marquette could be headed from Dallas to Phoenix for its first Final Four since the school’s 1977 National Championship team and Smart's first since he burst onto the scene 13 years ago. After overcoming their nightmares on the first weekend of the tournament, it’s time for Shaka and Kolek to chase their Final Four dreams.

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