Mar 21, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Marquette Golden Eagles guard Tyler Kolek (11) during practice day at Gainbridge FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Imagine being in pain attempting the most mundane of tasks, such as getting out of a chair. 

Now you know how Tyler Kolek felt after suffering a grade 2 oblique strain last month. The road to recovery has been a process as the Marquette point guard will return to action for the No. 2-seeded Golden Eagles (25-9) on Friday in their 2024 NCAA Tournament opener versus No. 15-seed Western Kentucky (22-11)

“You don’t realize how everything you do is your core,” Kolek said. “Me and Kam (Jones), we were in class the next day, and he had to grab my arm and help me out of the chair. I couldn’t really even stand up. That morning I got in the car, I couldn’t even reach out to shut the door. It was definitely a struggle the first week just trying to even get up out of bed, sit up, just little things like that kind of throws you all out of whack. You’re using more your back and then that gets out of whack. I’m just thankful for the trainers and coaching staff, and I’m ready to go.”

The Golden Eagles did their best without Kolek, going 3-3 in his absence and reaching the Big East Tournament title game. Two of those losses were to defending national champ Connecticut, and the other was at then-No. 11 Creighton. No shame in that. But at this time of year, when the difference between seeds has never been smaller, championship contenders need to be at full strength.

Marquette head cooach Shaka Smart considered playing the two-time All-American last week.

“You know what, in retrospect, it was the right decision to not play Tyler,” he said. “It was a tough decision because when we were playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday last week. He was working out during the day, and even playing one-on-one, and he looked great. He was moving great, he was shooting great. But again, in retrospect, now having been through this week and the progression that we’ve gone through to get him ready for tomorrow, he needed to practice. He needed some repetitions five-on-five, up and down. I don’t know if it would have been fair to him to put him out there in that situation, as much as we wanted him.”

Kolek hasn’t played in almost a month, and now he’s playing in the most important game of the season. How effective will he be against a Western Kentucky team that plays at the fastest pace in the nation?  Smart didn’t rush back Kolek who last played Feb. 28 in a home victory over Providence. But oblique injuries can be tricky and no one knows how he’ll hold up over the stress of competition.

The best-case scenario is that Kolek looks like the guy who’s second in the country in assists per game (7.7). He’s second on the team in scoring (15.0 points) and is shooting 48.6% (40.0 from 3-point range). Marquette is also No. 22 in the nation in offensive efficiency. Kolek is the pilot who makes the Golden Eagles fly.

“I’ve been practicing this whole week,” he said. “I feel good. I feel confident. At this point in the season, nobody is 100 percent. Everybody is battling through something. Just got to put the straps on and battle up again.”

When Kolek doesn’t play at his best, this team is vulnerable. Just cue up the footage of last season’s second-round NCAA Tournament upset loss when the 2023 Big East champion and No. 2 seed lost to No. 7-seed Michigan State. Kolek had almost as many turnovers (6) as points (7).

A No. 15 seed has beaten a No. 2 in the past two years. In 2022, Saint Peter’s stunned Kentucky here at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. In 2023, Princeton shocked Arizona. The impossible happens in this tournament.

Marquette’s chances of avoiding disaster may hinge on Kolek.

“I think the biggest challenge for him tomorrow is going to be the psychological part of coming back to playing after three weeks of not playing,” Smart said. “He’s a very, very thoughtful, intentional, serious person and player, and he wants to get everything right. But as I’ve explained to him, he doesn’t have to hit a home run on his first at-bat. If he can get on base, help our team play well on both ends of the floor, we’ll be in good shape.”

About Michael Grant

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