First year Marquette coach Shaka Smart checked in at No. 3 on March Madness correspondent Andy Katz's top-10 rankings of new men's basketball head coaches, as the Golden Eagles are off to a 15-7 start (7-4 Big East), highlighted by a road win at Villanova amid a seven-game winning streak in conference play.
On the latest episode of the March Madness 365 podcast (#MM365), Smart, as well as Oklahoma coach Porter Moser, joined Katz to discuss their first seasons at their respective schools.
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Here's how Smart has felt at home, and built a Big East contender, in his first season at Marquette.
It wasn't always guaranteed that Marquette would find itself near the top of the Big East standings at the start of February in Smart's first season, as he had to meet with Marquette's players last season by traveling across the country to figure out who he would coach this season.
"I think for anyone who got a job this past spring, it was to be determined because there was so much up in the air with Covid," Smart told Katz on the podcast. "In fact, when we got here to Marquette, the vast majority of the players weren't even on campus. They were home doing school virtually, so I had to go fly and visit them, sit down with their parents and find out if they were even going to come back. Then for us, the majority of the guys did not come back, so we only had three returning players, really had to do a good job finding some guys in the transfer portal and we were fortunate that three of the guys that signed with us at Texas decided to come here."
The three scholarship players who returned from last season were Justin Lewis (7.8 points per game), Greg Elliott (6.2) and Oso Ighodaro (1.2), plus walk-ons Brendan Carney and Michael Kennedy. Lewis has since blossomed into an all-Big East-caliber player, who's averaging 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, both of which lead the game. Smart has supplemented the few returning players with transfers Darryl Morsell (Maryland), Tyler Kolek (George Mason), Olivier-Maxence Prosper (Clemson) and Kur Kuath (Oklahoma).
RANKINGS: AP Top 25 poll | NET rankings | Andy Katz's Power 36
Smart said relationships were key to building Marquette's roster in his first season.
"For us, that's our number one core value," he said. "Everybody talks about family but everyone also does things differently so for us, we spent a ton of time together. Anyone coming in here is gonna know we're gonna first and foremost work on your development as a person and by the way, that's closely tied to your development as a player."
As of Feb. 1, that group ranks second in Big East play in defensive efficiency and third in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, and the Golden Eagles have already beaten two of the three teams ahead of them in the conference standings.
"I think the double round robin is a big similarity," Smart said, when asked about the Big East versus the Big 12. "Let's face it, in these two leagues, you can't really duck anyone. You have to go to everyone's home floor. Everyone's gotta come to you. That's a big difference between, you know like when I was an assistant at Clemson or Florida, you just didn't necessarily go to every place, so depending on how the schedule fell, it might work in your favor or work against you. I think the Big East is similar to the Big 12 in terms of the quality of the coaching."
What does Smart have to say of the fit of him at Marquette?
"I think the fact that basketball is so incredibly central and important to the university, that's a big part of it," Smart said. "Secondly, and this is obviously related, the fact that there's incredible alignment here, from the president of the university Michael Lovell, to the Board of Trustees, to our athletic director Bill, to our fans, our students. Everyone's really on the same page in terms of wanting to be great in basketball and also what it takes to be great."
As Smart has become part of the Marquette family and Milwaukee community, the Madison, Wisc., native is now also closer to his actual family, another benefit of his current job.
"It's great, being close to my mom. That's the biggest advantage to me," Smart said. "I'm fortunate, everywhere I've lived, I've really enjoyed it. It's been great people literally at every stop."