Shaka Smart coaches for the Marquette Golden Eagles in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Mar 17, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Marquette Golden Eagles head coach Shaka Smart yells during the first round of the NCAA men s basketball tournament against the Vermont Catamounts at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch Basketball Ncaa Men S Basketball Tournament

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Shaka Smart pointed triumphantly in the direction of the raucous Marquette University crowd at Nationwide Arena. And even though he turned down an opportunity to enjoy a celebratory milkshake live on television, he was savoring the moment. On Friday, he accomplished something at his current job that never did at his old one.

Smart won an NCAA Tournament game. His No. 2-seeded Golden Eagles surged in the second half to defeat No. 15 Vermont 78-61. On paper, that might not seem much. Marquette did what it was supposed to. But for Smart, who celebrates victories away from home with milkshakes, this was a great start for what he hopes will be a memorable March. Marquette (29-6) will face No. 7 Michigan State (20-12) with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. 

Sometimes in college basketball, it’s about finding the right fit. It’s that simple. No matter how smart you are, or how talented your roster is, the right chemistry often makes a difference. At least from the start, it looks like Smart and Marquette might be a match made in hardcourt heaven.

In his second season, Smart has the Golden Eagles on the verge of their first trip to the Sweet 16 in ten years. This season must feel extremely satisfying for Smart after the disappointment of what happened in Austin, Texas.

Smart, crowned as a rock star at an early age, is experiencing the type of success that many expected him to have at Texas. Didn’t happen. And after six mediocre years, the two parties mutually split. The big-moneyed Longhorns boosters were growing weary. Maybe Smart would have lasted one more season before he was bounced out the door. So, Smart was proactive and returned to a friendlier environment. The Wisconsin native came home. 

Marquette and Smart needed each other because both were looking to recapture previous magic. Smart was a coaching darling at VCU after becoming the first to take a team from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. That was the same year Brad Stevens reached his second Final Four with Butler.

Stevens, then 35, and Smart, then 37,  looked like the future kings of college basketball. Smart and Stevens were rumored for every major opening as athletic directors looking to make a big splash vigorously courted them.  

Didn’t quite work out the way we expected. Steven stunningly left for the NBA in 2013 to lead the Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, Smart went to Texas in 2015. Everyone applauded the Longhorns for making what seemed to be a home-run hire. There was no way it could fail, right? Well, it was shocking that Shaka didn’t achieve more. 

Under Smart, Texas never won more than 21 games and never won an NCAA Tournament game. By defeating Vermont, Smart earned his first NCAA victory in 10 years. Unlike Texas, he doesn’t have a roster full of blue-chippers. What he does have is a feisty bunch that fits his style. 

Marquette didn’t add an active transfer in the off-season and lost four of its top six scorers from last year. The Golden Eagles were picked to finish ninth in the Big East. So it was surprising that they won the regular-season championship and the conference tournament title. 

Against Vermont, Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek didn’t play particularly well (8 points, 3-of-11 shooting). He suffered a wrist injury and was in foul trouble early. It didn’t matter. The Golden Eagles dominated the second half.

“We’re better together,” Smart said. “It’s a team effort. We’ve never been a team that depends on one guy to score all of our points or even close to that.”

Smart has been defined by his early career success. Now he has a chance to make new memories.

“Our focus is on being the best Marquette we can be,” Smart said.

About Michael Grant

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