Mar 22, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Marquette Golden Eagles guard Tyler Kolek (11) and guard Kam Jones (1) celebrate in the second half against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Gainbridge FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – There’s one less thing for Shaka Smart to worry about. Marquette University’s dynamic backcourt seems to be in peak form.

If Tyler Kolek and Kam Jones continue to perform as they did Friday, the No. 2-seeded Golden Eagles will be difficult to beat in the NCAA Tournament. They sparked a first-round 87-69 victory over upset-minded No. 15 Western Kentucky at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. After trailing by as much as 10 points, and 43-36 at halftime, Marquette dominated the second half, outscoring the Hilltoppers 51-26 after the break. Kolek finished with 18 points and 11 assists, while Jones poured in 28 points.

“Fortunately Tyler and Kam kept us afloat,” Smart said. “We were fortunate to only be down seven at the half. These guys were able to make some plays.”

The biggest concern for Smart was Kolek. His All-American point guard hadn’t played since Feb. 28 because of an oblique strain. It’s difficult to return after weeks of inaction and catch up to game speed. Kolek looked like he never left. He made his first two shots and was 7 of 13 from the field. More importantly, he played a season-high 37 minutes.

In the NCAA Tournament, matchups play a big role. This particular one could have been a potential problem for Kolek. Western Kentucky plays at the nation’s fastest pace so it would have been understandable if the tempo wore the senior down. But he looked fresh and got better as the game went on. 

All but one of his assists were in the second half. He had one turnover after the break. If one play told the story, it was when Kolek made a steal in the backcourt and found Jones for a three-pointer to increase the lead to 78-65 with 4:22 to play.

“I really haven’t felt out of the groove at all, even in practice,” he said. “I’ve been playing this game a long time. Once I hit the floor, there were some obvious jitters because I haven’t played since three weeks now, but I think 37 minutes, most minutes in a game, so I thought I did all right.”

When Kolek missed six games, his teammates had to learn to do more to compensate for his absence. One of them was Jones. That meant more playmaking responsibilities. Those adjustments will serve Marquette better in the long run. But against Western Kentucky, he returned to his regular role and thrived. Jones had 18 points in the second half, acting as a finisher for Kolek’s pinpoint passes. He was 10-of-16 from the floor and made half of his 10 shots from beyond the arc.

While there was doubt on how the Golden Eagles will look on Friday. Jones didn’t have any concerns— even when his team trailed 43-33 early.

Asked when he knew that Kolek was back to normal, Jones said, “I mean, the first practice. He came in and just did what he does. It was nothing unusual. He came back in, got the ball, made the plays he normally makes and we just do what we do and we’re glad to have him and grateful to have him back.”

With Marquette at full strength, the program will have a shot to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. The Golden Eagles were in this position last year before being stunned by Michigan State. 

This team looks better and more determined.

“We talk about building championship habits,” Smart said. One of the most important of those is the way we respond to adversity, and the guys did a great job of that today.”

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.