NEW YORK — Minutes removed from the final buzzer, the chants were still reverberating from the gleeful souls in blue, white and gold inside Madison Square Garden.
"We are! Marquette!"
"We are! Marquette!"
"We are! Marquette!"
These Golden Eagles — players, coaches and support staff alike — were on the receiving end of those cries as they donned their championship hats (oversized tags still dangling from the mesh) and Marquette-blue BIG EAST CHAMPIONS shirts. A crowd of approximately 10,000 remained scattered around the lower and upper bowls of MSG to watch their top-seeded school do what it had never done before: Win the Big East Tournament.
In mowing down a tired Xavier team 65-51, Marquette locked itself into a No. 2 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament.
On the confetti-littered floor, the most popular man in the building inconspicuously celebrated with his family.
"I remember my first time being in here as an assistant coach and just being like a kid in a museum, just walking around," Marquette coach Shaka Smart said.
Smart's team added to the history of that proverbial MSG museum. For three days last week, the Golden Eagles owned the Garden. They'll have a chance to do it again next week; Marquette will play in the East Regional at MSG if it wins its next two games.
In a year packed with great candidates to win National Coach of the Year, Smart is as viable as any of them — if not atop the list. In just two years, he's gone 47-19 and brought verve and optimism back to an underrated college basketball hotbed: Milwaukee.
"Marquette is a special place," Smart said atop the championship podium Saturday night. "It's played special basketball for a long, long time."
This is more than a Big East coronation, more than one last tangible piece of evidence that the team that many reluctantly included in the Final Four conversation for much of the past two months was no longer some wait-and-see squad. The crew picked ninth in the Big East preseason poll swept both league titles in 2022-23. The Golden Eagles are screaming into the big bracket as they prepare for their Friday afternoon matchup with No. 15 Vermont in Columbus, Ohio.
For Smart to be in this place at this moment is a storybook twist nobody saw coming. Two years ago, he was unwittingly preparing for one of the worst losses of his career, a first-round upset vs. 14-seed Abilene Christian in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The loss prompted panic around the program. With no wins in the NCAA Tournament at Texas, Smart was on shaky ground despite overseeing a program recruiting five-star prospects with regularity and flipping them into first-round draft picks. Longhorns athletic director Chris Del Conte knew it would be best to help move Smart if he could, and that's where Marquette came in. (MU fired Steve Wojciechowski the day before ACU beat Texas.)
"It felt like the right move. And it felt like we really could do something special. I can't really explain why," Smart told CBS Sports about his decision to leave Texas.
Within 48 hours of Texas' season ending, Smart was in deep discussions with Marquette brass. Smart and his representatives moved quietly and quickly to make it happen. In just a few days, he was officially off to Milwaukee. Few saw it coming; it was a stunner in college basketball's news cycle.
The irony in Smart getting to Marquette is in the way it happened. He famously passed on dozens of offers for years when he was thriving at VCU, only to finally accept the big job at Texas in 2015. He did well enough there, but the fit was never the absolute best. Something was missing.
"A lot of people have asked me, trying to get me to say negative things about Texas, and I'm not doing it," Smart told CBS Sports. "It was such an incredible experience there. Never trade that for anything. But at that time, with where our family was, just felt like it made sense."
It made sense not because he's from Madison, Wisconsin, or that his mother still lives nearby. Those are the bonuses. More than anything, Smart's vision for running a program aligned with what Marquette was selling. He's a basketball man who thrives at a place that puts basketball above everything else.
Marquette was, in many ways, a grander version of what he had at VCU. The school president, Dr. Michael Lovell, is a cancer survivor and someone who feverishly supports MU's ambitious athletic endeavors.
On Thursday, as Marquette found itself in a banger against eighth-seeded St. John's in the Big East quarterfinals, Lovell could be seen slapping the floor alongside Marquette athletic director Bill Scholl. Two gray-haired men as emotionally as invested in a win or a loss as the guys in uniform.
That's why Shaka came to Marquette.
"I've worked for six college presidents, and he stands apart in a lot of ways," Smart said of Lovell. "His compassion, his character level, his integrity. A lot of those guys are cyborgs, man. They're not real people. He's a real person. ... You don't win at the highest level without true alignment from the top down. We have that at Marquette. Very, very grateful for that."
Smart picked the best school at the best moment. Coaches across all sports, not just college basketball, speak on striking at opportunity when it's there because you never know when you'll get your next chance, or when those opportunities will provide an avenue to a better career, a happier life. Smart is a basketball man who's made for a basketball school in a basketball league. He could still maybe be at Texas right now or somewhere else, and it might be going well.
But it's impossible to envision how his present and future could ever be better than what he's building at Marquette.
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Marquette assistant Dre Haynes played at Kent State two decades ago when a young Shaka, then an assistant at Akron, scouted him. When Smart took the job with the Golden Eagles, he recruited Haynes to his staff. For Haynes, it was an easy decision; he'd long looked up to Smart's style and one day hoped to work with him.
"His vision was right. I'm gonna tell you why," Haynes said. "A lot of people said, 'Man, y'all gonna suck. You're not gonna be good.' We lost Justin (Lewis). We lost Darryl (Morsell). We lost Kur (Kuath). We lost G (Greg Elliot). And it was like, man, we're gonna be terrible. We didn't know how we were going to score, right? We got a guy named Tyler Kolek, a guy named Oso, who led his team."
Oso Ighodaro were good enough to be the alphas. He was right. After a surprising first-year run to the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Marquette was expected to fall into the background of college basketball.. He told his staff Kolek and
Instead, it's been one of the most surprising stories of the season. With Villanova in rebuild mode after Jay Wright's retirement, it wasn't UConn, Creighton or Xavier that pushed to the top of the league. It was Marquette — definitively.
Being at a place that prioritizes basketball over football isn't just a trite talking point — it's the heart of the matter and why Marquette is surging, why it's got goals beyond winning a Big East title.
"It matters," Smart told CBS Sports. "You're talking to someone who was an assistant for Billy Donovan. I have a keen understanding of what he did at a 'football school.' So it doesn't mean it can't be done at those types of places. But the one thing that I didn't fully understand or appreciate until coaching in this league for a couple of years: There is a difference — and this is not just at Marquette — across the board in this league, when you don't have big-time football, and that ball goes up in the air in your home arena, in terms of what it means to everyone associated with your university. It is so meaningful. Winning is meaningful. Losing is meaningful. Everything in between that occurs, it matters. And I like being around that. That's cool to me.
"I played Division III basketball in front of a couple hundred people, so it's pretty cool to get on a plane and fly to Providence and try to find a way to win," Smart continued. "Knowing that those people in that building are desperate to beat you. And same thing going to Seton Hall or UConn or wherever. That's the difference."
Haynes said Smart's culture is one of energy and accountability. It's also built on love and respect. Not platitudes or clichés. The energy in the program is pulsating every day. If it wasn't, Marquette wouldn't be here.
"We had one argument this year between a player and a coach," Haynes said. "ONE. One. The culture is here now. We didn't let it drop. We didn't we didn't lower our standards, not one day."
They call Smart the "Fearless Leader." He walks in with positivity every day. He drives to work eager to get there. He wants to be in the building, wants to be around his players and his staff. He walks into any room, any gym, and the air seems to intensify.
Shaka Smart didn't need a rejuvenation, he only needed Marquette. Even more, Marquette needed him. Now look at them. From ninth in the Big East to league champions and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The most exciting part for the program and its fan base: This is only Phase 1 of what might be a perfect pairing that lasts a decade or more.