Greska: Done Deal Was a Blessing In Disguise

Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches

If you have been a terminally online fan since 2014 or so, the words “done deal” probably send a shudder down your spine.

If you don’t have a visceral reaction, I envy you, and would like to catch you up, as it’s vital to the dream we are currently living in.

For the full version, I have yet to find a better recap than PT founder Mark Strotman’s recap: It’s long but truly gives you a blow by blow of how Marquette fans experienced insult on top of previous insult.

The TL;DR version: a segment of local Marquette media, student and pro, were reporting Shaka Smart being inked as Buzz William’s replacement as a “Done Deal” while national media was specifically saying it wasn’t. And well, you know who ended up being right.

But the ignominy didn’t just end at getting rebuffed. Marquette was the laughingstock of the country, with local TV channels even getting the dreaded Deadspin treatment.

So it has come as quite a shock to myself that I have come around to the opinion that this Done Deal episode may have been one of the best things to ever happen to Marquette.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Before we get to Marquette, though, we have to look at Shaka.

After his dalliance with MU in 2014, he stayed another season at VCU where he won the Atlantic-10 conference tournament on the way to a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament, his 5th straight in 6 total seasons as a coach. He was maybe the hottest coaching commodity in the country and was selected to replace Rick Barnes at Texas, one of the best jobs in the land in terms of resources and native talent.

And it didn’t work.

Despite making the NCAA Tournament 3 times in 5 possible seasons (not counting COVID), and capping 2021 off with a Big 12 Tournament title, an 0-3 record in the Big Dance was enough to have his name start to circulate on Hot Seat lists. The draft picks and lottery picks and top 10 recruiting classes just weren’t enough combined with that NCAA record.

But outside of the on court performance, he was miserable. And that’s not me putting words in his mouth. He went to a place and let it change him. He wasn’t running Havoc on defense. He wasn’t the scrappy underdog. His program, despite the resources at his disposal, was a distant second to football. People cared, but in an ephemeral way.

And these 6 years in Austin have been a Godsend for Marquette fans. Not just in the sense that he was able to jump ship with nary a buyout payment, but in that Shaka scratched that Big Program itch.

Commitment Issues

We saw it for years with Tom Crean. He helped transition Marquette into the Big East, brought a Final Four, set up the program for new heights and then booked it to Indiana after a few previous dalliances with other suitors.

We saw it for years with Buzz Williams. As hesitant as people are to admit it to this day, Buzz was gone to greener pastures multiple times in his stint in Milwaukee, as early as 2011, were it not for sexual assault allegations of his team under his watch.

Ken Pomeroy of KenPom fame named Marquette as one of the 2 schools in the country he’d want to start his career at if her were an up and coming assistant coach, because of the opportunities it provided to move up a rung but with history and money backing you the whole way.

Heck even go back to Kevin O’Neill in the 90s, though admittedly under very different circumstances from a program perspective, but there has yet to be a coach at MU since Al that found success and wanted to continue building on it.

And don’t take my interpretation of events as gospel, here is what Jerel McNeal himself told The Golden Break podcast.

“I’ve been waiting on the guy who’s going to come in and it’s not the next job for them. And that’s just being honest, me knowing the landscape of college basketball, certain guys get the job and it’s like he doesn’t want to retire at Marquette because there’s always something bigger, always something better.”

Again, this is from a Marquette legend who himself played for two of Marquette’s most successful coaches, not a blog boy from the couch in his basement.

“I’m looking for the next coach that’s going to come in and be like, no, this program was the program that was the top, Jerel continued. “We have a national championship. We had a run where we were the cream of the crop and could be considered one of the blue bloods. This is not a run of the mill program…”

Which brings us back to Shaka. Having already been a part of “the next job” and having voluntarily left it without being fired or forced out, he’s in a position to not only build up Marquette, but maintain it at an elevated level rather than simply using it as a springboard.

The Perfect Fit

What makes me so confident in that assertion? It isn’t just Marquette fans telling themselves this to sleep soundly.

Take a look at this quote from AD Bill Scholl in a column all about Shaka’s immaculate fit in Milwaukee.

“Not every player is a good fit for every school,” athletic director Bill Scholl told Brian Hamilton after Marquette beat UConn in the Big East Tournament. “Not every coach is a good fit. Not every administrator is a good fit. But, boy, I think in this particular case, his value system and Marquette’s value system match up so well. What he wants to accomplish, and how he wants to do it, is exactly how Marquette would want it done.”

Ok, but what do you expect a vested party to say in the heat of a championship run?

Can I interest you in an article from January, before all of the title swag had been doled out?

Here’s what FOX Sports writer and Big East contributor John Fanta had to say: “The Smart-Marquette marriage is the natural fit at the perfect time.”

And the reason it’s so perfect is what both parties have had to go through since their initial connection. Neither has won an NCAA tournament since that fateful March mess. Shaka experienced the hollowness of brighter lights. Marquette combed the midness of mediocrity under Wojo. Both feel grateful to have the other onboard.

And once more, this isn’t me reading way into things with a tinfoil hat on. Listen to Shaka himself.

Which brings us back to March 2014. One of the supposed sticking points for Shaka signing was that the university was undergoing so much leadership change, both from a presidential and AD level. There are rumors that Lovell’s selection, which was announced on March 26th, was rushed/sped up specifically to get buy-in from Shaka Smart himself.

Is that not the most storybook plot? To hear Shaka wax poetic on the podium about the president the school had tried to sell him on years earlier is the stuff that gets cut out of sports movies for being too cheesy.

Just 9 years later and this delayed marriage has provided a bounty usually reserved for daydreams.

What’s the Catch?

“He’s one of those guys where it’s almost too good to be true.” – Jerel McNeal on Shaka Smart

I know a thing or two about too good to be true. I have written at length about my experience as a student with Buzz Williams, and how the curtain was pulled in 2012. One of the best days of my life up to that point ended with my naivete pinned to a Louisville bar.

So trust me, I have had internal conversations with myself about not chugging too much of the kool-aid. All coaches are sociopathic to some extent, as willingly putting yourself through all of this automatically puts you in that bucket. And even though Shaka seems fairly well adjusted, my guard remains up.

But then I look at the photo at the top, one our own Ryan Messier took after Marquette beat St. John’s at home, celebrating the first outright Big East title in Marquette history, and I see the reflection of a man who knows what he has. You tie that in to his victory speech in the Garden, and his connection to the the fans and the marrying of program history, and how can you not be enamored.

Of course, it’s easy to be in love with the guy that has brought Marquette to its highest non-2003 heights in 4 decades. With Marquette announced as a 2-seed today, less than 24 hours after capturing MSG, the highs are too recent to think rationally.

But once more I’ll go to a Shaka core tenet, wherein the process should receive more scrutiny than the results. If Marquette loses two of the coinflip games it ended up winning in Big East play, and doesn’t win the conference crown, I’d still be pitching this same column.

He came to Marquette with a stated goal of taking non-5 star recruits, guys that needed some polishing and probably would need 3-4 years in his system. He told us up front, before the ball was tipped, the first 2 seasons were all about setting the culture. He didn’t set goals in front of the team either year. Come in and trust me. Buy into what we are building. Become the best version of yourself over time.

That he’s had this level of success to date should shock even the most optimistic fans. As the youngest Big East team and one of the bottom-20 least experienced D1 squads, this was not necessarily a team made to make a deep March run. So setting aside the overachievement from a results perspective, he has proven that his idea, to get back to his roots and not have to compete for elite one-and-done talent on a yearly basis, can be successful in a league as difficult at the Big East.

And that brings us all the way back. It sucked living through the blandness of the Wojo years. But in that time, while MU nation came to become more appreciative of lower baselines of success, Shaka grew into not just a great motivator or recruiter, but a more well-rounded program builder, willing to bring in outside help like offensive guru Nevada Smith and become comfortable with a style of play where the offense outshines the defense.

He’s a different, better person than he was in 2014.

Marquette is a different, better fit than it was in 2014.

Those 7 seasons of futility may be the best thing to ever happen to Shaka and Marquette.

Done Deal.

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Categories: Columns


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