“Picked to Finish Ninth”

Marquette men’s basketball’s intensity, camaraderie and success began with head coach Shaka Smart.

Marquette Magazine remembers the championship men’s basketball season that began in obscurity.

Energy-Generating Behaviors (EGBs)

At the center of the men’s Golden Eagles’ distinct culture and success this season was second-year head coach Shaka Smart. Known as a builder of swarming defenses, he helped this team craft one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. He built real relationships with team members and motivated them with now-familiar mantras — urging them to be “dominoes” making the next person better, and calling for “energy-generating behaviors” (anything from a defensive deflection to a chest bump after a score, all tallied carefully by assistants during practices). In frequent, often exuberant motion, Smart emerged as a major source of EGBs himself, which endeared him to fans near and far.

Point guard Tyler Kolek kept his foot on the accelerator on the way to team success and personal honors including Big East Player of the Year and third-team AP All-American.

That Prediction

The season that started with a discouraging assessment — Big East coaches rating the Golden Eagles ninth of 11 teams in the conference — ascended step-by-step to thrilling heights. Most wins in program history. First outright Big East regular season championship. First Big East tournament triumph. Junior point guard Tyler Kolek selected as Big East Player of the Year. And Shaka Smart named both Big East and AP College Basketball Coach of the Year. Along the way, the phrase “picked to finish ninth” clung to the team — serving alternately as a challenge, an emblem of pride and unquenchable spirit, and an exclamation point on how this group grew and who they became. In the end, phrase and team became part of Marquette lore.

The joyous post-game trophy celebration in Madison Square Garden, March 11, 2023.
Marquette President Michael R. Lovell in Madison Square Garden, March 11, 2023.

All Net

“I’m playing the game I love with my best friends,” junior center Oso Ighodaro said after hoisting the Big East tournament trophy in New York’s Madison Square Garden. His words captured the team’s tight bond and admirable Marquette way of winning. Smart and President Michael R. Lovell both praised how well their values fit each other and their institution. After Lovell missed out on the net cutting at a ceremony at the end of the regular season, Smart vowed, “We just have to go win in the Garden and cut down another net.” That’s exactly what happened, leading to an emotional high, an evening when iconic landmarks in New York and Milwaukee glowed blue and gold. As the great run ended a week later in the NCAA tournament’s second round, loss and gratitude mixed with a sense of more to come.

Milwaukee’s iconic Hoan Bridge glowed Marquette blue and gold in the hours after the Golden Eagles won the Big East tournament.
A few blocks from Madison Square Garden, New York City’s Empire State Building sported Marquette’s colors after the Golden Eagles’ triumph.
After Marquette bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round against Michigan State, a tweet captures the gratitude and optimism that shone through the disappointment of the moment.

From the spring 2023 issue of Marquette Magazine; text by Stephen Filmanowicz.