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How Have Shaka Smart’s Teams Responded To Expectations In The Past?

2023-24 will be the first Marquette team under Smart’s guidance with real expectations attached to them. How have his teams dealt with that in the past?

Xavier v Marquette Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When Shaka Smart first arrived at Marquette in the spring of 2021, he had a pretty low bar set for him. At that point, Marquette fans just wanted to see the team be better than the sub-.500 team that they watched the previous season, which was MU’s first losing season since 2014 and just the second one since the beginning of the 21st century. Smart’s first Golden Eagles squad was picked to finish 9th in the Big East, but they easily surpassed that and by March 2022, they earned the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2019.

With the losses of Justin Lewis to the NBA Draft and the end of eligibility for Darryl Morsell and Kur Kuath between Smart’s first and second season, Year Two’s expectations from the fanbase weren’t particularly high. I feel safe saying that MU fans thought the team would be better than the second straight 9th place projection from the Big East coaches, but even the most optimistic view, the most blue-and-gold-colored-glasses view, topped out somewhere around “all the pieces fit together and they make the NCAA tournament easily, maybe easier than the year before.” That goal was shot right past with a 11-1 run to close the regular season, an outright Big East regular season title, and a Big East conference tournament title, both of which were firsts for the Golden Eagles, and the best NCAA tournament seed in program history.

In other words, Shaka Smart has done nothing but put smiles on faces for two straight seasons, at least in terms of surpassing what both outsiders and Marquette fans thought was the best case scenario for the two teams that he’s coached in Milwaukee.

That brings us to the 2023-24 season, Smart’s third go-round in the big chair on the sideline. The big time expectations started for Marquette as soon as UConn wrapped up their national championship, as all the major talking heads installed the Golden Eagles as, at worst, one of the five best teams in the country. Now, maybe some transfers elsewhere in the landscape and some unexpected draft decisions changed that, but the fact remains that Marquette stands poised to be picked to 1) win the Big East and 2) compete for a national championship.

Which raises a question: How have Shaka Smart and his teams responded to expectations throughout his career?

Well, let’s go look, shall we?



Picked: 3rd out of 12 in the CAA
Result: Tied for 5th, won the tiebreaker for the conference tournament, lost in the semifinals, won the CBI by beating Saint Louis 2-0 in a best out of three series

I’m going to call this meeting expectations, as they were only one game back in the CAA standings since there was a tie for third and they had to win five straight games, including the first one and the last one on the road, to win the CBI in Smart’s first year as a head coach at any level.


Picked: 3rd out of 12 in the CAA
Result: 4th, lost in the conference title game, got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as a #11 seed in the First Four, went to the Final Four

The at-large bid was pinned on a neutral site win over UCLA at Madison Square Garden and a late season BracketBusters (kids, ask your parents about Bracket Busters) road win over Wichita State. I’m actually going to call this failing to meet expectations. The Rams finished two games back of a tie for second place in the CAA standings, but that’s on them. They were 10-1 on January 29th, then lost to a Northeastern team that finished the year 11-20, then closed the regular season on a 2-5 stretch in league play with the Wichita State game giving them a victory amongst four straight CAA losses. An amazing end to the year overall, but they nearly played their way out of the tournament, too.


Picked: 3rd out of 12 in the CAA
Result: 2nd, one game behind Drexel, won the conference tournament by beating Drexel, advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament as a #12 seed

The Rams entered the postseason on a 14-1 run after starting out CAA action 2-2, and then stacked up four more wins before falling to #4 seeded Indiana in the second round. An admirable follow up to something of a miracle Final Four run, and obviously surpassing expectation for the season.


Picked: 3rd out of 16 in the Atlantic 10
Result: 2nd, one game behind Saint Louis, lost the conference title game to SLU, got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as a #5 seed, advanced to the second round

Let’s call this one narrowly exceeding expectations, but it’s meeting the expectations at worst. In their first year in the Atlantic 10, VCU was expected to be a power player right out of the gate and they were, rattling off an 18-2 stretch at one point of the season. You can’t really fault them for their NCAA tournament loss, as that was to the Michigan team that lost to Louisville in the national championship game.


Picked: 1st out of 13 in the Atlantic 10, ranked #14 in the preseason AP poll
Result: 2nd, one game behind Saint Louis, lost to Saint Joseph’s in the conference title game, lost in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a #5 seed

VCU got a little bit screwed by the AP voters early in the season, as they lost games to Florida State and Georgetown in a Holiday Week event and went from #10 to unranked. Absurd. They went 20-5 after that to get themselves back into the poll heading into the A-10 tourney. I’m calling this meeting expectations, as they split the season series with Saint Louis and lost narrowly to Saint Joe’s twice, including that conference title game. Losing to the Thomas Walkup Stephen F. Austin squad in the NCAAs is a little awkward, but we’re trying to measure a 35 game season here.


Picked: 1st out of 14 in the Atlantic 10, ranked #15 in the preseason AP poll
Result: Tied for fourth, two games behind 1st place Davidson, lost the conference tournament tiebreaker, won the conference tournament, lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a #7 seed

A 5-3 start dropped the Rams from the AP rankings, but an eight game winning streak had them back in the poll’s good graces for most of the rest of the season. They were cruising towards the top of the A-10 with a 7-0 start in the league, but then finished the regular season on a 5-6 stretch. GIANT CAVEAT: That’s the year Briante Weber missed the rest of the season. And they went 5-5 without him. And then won the A-10 tournament without him. I’m going to to call this meeting expectations since they were #18 in the country when they lost Weber for the year, but obviously you can say this is something less than that, too.



Picked: 4th out of 10 in the Big 12
Result: 4th, lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals, earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as a #6 seed, lost in the first round

The Longhorns lost senior center Cameron Ridley for all of Big 12 play and still ended up exactly where everyone thought they would be in the standings. Let’s call it meeting expectations, and not think about the fact that they had to rally from down big at the half against Northern Iowa to make that a game in the NCAAs before losing anyway.


Picked: 3rd out of 10 in the Big 12, ranked #21 in the preseason AP poll
Result: 10th, lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals, missed the postseason

This one’s a miss for Smart, even though/because he had to suspend leading scorer Tevin Mack for a violation of team rules midway through the season. They lost their final seven games of the regular season, and they were already 4-7 in Big 12 action when that slide started.


Picked: 4th out of 10 in the Big 12
Result: Four-way tie for 6th, ended up the #7 seed in the conference tournament by tiebreakers, lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals, earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as a #10 seed, lost in overtime in the first round

I’m going to give Smart partial credit for meeting expectations here because 1) still made the tournament and 2) this was the season where Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia midway through the year. That’s the kind of thing that can wreck a team between losing a guy who was averaging 14 points, two rebounds, and two assists, not to mention shooting 46% from long range, as well as the emotional stress put on his teammates from knowing what Jones was going through. Officially didn’t meet the expectation from the preseason, but held the program together long enough to be an NCAA tournament team after Jones went out for the reset of the season, so that’s gotta be at least partial credit, right?


Picked: Tied for 4th out of 10 in the Big 12
Result: 6th, lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals, earned a #2 seed in the NIT, beat Lipscomb to win the NIT

Did the Andrew Jones situation carry over to this year? He played a couple of minutes early in the season and then didn’t play again after Thanksgiving. Texas was a top 30 KenPom team on Selection Sunday, but 2-5 down the stretch in the regular season didn’t do them any favors in terms of having a profile that was worthy of inclusion. We have to say it’s falling short of expectation, but hey, winning the NIT after all of that is still pretty impressive.


Picked: 4th out of 10 in the Big 12
Result: Tied for 4th, won the tiebreaker, postseason canceled

Texas was 14-11 with a 4-8 Big 12 record on February 16th, but finished the regular season at 19-12 and 9-9 after getting clanked by Oklahoma State in their finale. KenPom’s logs of the Bracket Matrix projection when the season was shut down says that Texas wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament. I think that means that we have to say that this is falling short of expectations as a result of that, right? It would have been nice to get some postseason data points to really get a feel for it, but oh well.


Picked: 4th out of 10 in the Big 12
Result: Tied for 3rd, won the tiebreaker, won the conference tournament, lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a #3 seed

Is this Shaka Smart’s first truly successful season at Texas? Up til now, it was all “yeah, but” type of stuff or just straight up missing the mark as to what was expected of them. Even with saying that it was a success, it still ended with a loss to a #14 seed in the NCAA tournament, so that’s not a very fun way to end an otherwise positive season.

Now, obviously, one of the things that I did not do here was take stock of what kind of roster that Shaka Smart was bringing along from season to season. I like you people out there in Internet Land but I don’t “do 12 years of year-to-year roster evaluation/comparison” like you.

Generally speaking though, I think we have to say that up until he arrived at Marquette, Shaka Smart wasn’t doing a lot of clearly exceeding expectations for his team. Now, the catch there is that up until he got to Marquette, Shaka Smart’s teams were largely regarded as conference title contenders or at the very least usually top half of the league teams. Perhaps he was able to go shooting past expectations in the past two years because it’s pretty easy to motivate college basketball players to prove how wrong outsiders are about your team.

Now he has a team that’s expected to be great, perhaps the best team he’s ever coached in his time in Division 1. It’s also mostly made up of guys who were around last year when they were motivated by that 9th place vote. Most of those guys were on the team the year before that, too. What happens when you take a team that knows the kind of edge that you have to play with to prove people wrong and tell them that they have to use that edge to prove people right now? Can Smart change the trajectory of his coaching past and push his team to meet the very high expectations of both national media but also a Marquette fan base that wants nothing more than to celebrate their team’s moment in the sun?