Once Underdogs, They’re Still Playing With Chips on Their Shoulders

Near the start of the college basketball season, a reporter told Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek that the Golden Eagles had been picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the Big East Conference.

Kolek, staring at a board that depicted the predicted standings of the conference’s teams, dismissed the assessment and those who had made it with an expletive.

“We knew we were better than that, and we’re proving it now,” Kolek said last week during the Big East tournament.

Indeed they are. Kolek, a cocky but skilled 6-foot-3 point guard from Cumberland, R.I., was named the most valuable player of the Big East tournament after leading Marquette to its first championship in the conference, with a 65-51 victory over Xavier on Saturday night.

The Golden Eagles are the No. 2 seed in the East region of the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament and will face No. 15 seed Vermont on Friday. They are a popular pick to make a deep run toward a national title.

“They got a chance to be a Final Four team this year or better,” Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said after his team lost to Marquette in the Big East semifinals on Friday.

Marquette is one of several teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments that overachieved compared to preseason expectations and now have big, but attainable, dreams for a deep run.

On the men’s side, Iowa State was picked eighth, West Virginia ninth and Kansas State 10th in the Big 12, which has 10 teams. The Wildcats were installed as the No. 3 seed in the East, the Mountaineers are the No. 9 seed in the South and the Cyclones the No. 6 seed in the Midwest.

In the Big Ten, Penn State was picked 11th out of 14 teams, while Northwesternwas selected 13th. The Nittany Lions roared to the Big Ten championship game before coming up short against Purdue, 67-65, on Sunday, and are back in the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2011, as a No. 10 seed. Northwestern, in the tournament for the first time since 2017 and the second time ever, earned a No. 7 seed. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina State was picked 10th and Pittsburgh 14th; both made the tournament field.

On the women’s side, East Carolina was picked last in the American Athletic Conference and won the league’s automatic bid by beating Houston in the conference tournament championship game. Illinois was not picked among the top five in the Big Ten preseason poll (which ranks only five teams) yet finished tied for fifth and, under Coach Shauna Green, is headed to the tournament for the first time in 20 years.

The question now for these preseason underdogs is whether they can challenge for a title. Marquette’s Kolek believes he can — something he might never have imagined during his four years at St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I. He attracted little interest from major schools, ultimately choosing George Mason of the Atlantic 10 over other options including Richmond, Elon, Northeastern, Holy Cross and Vermont.

The left-hander was named the Atlantic 10 rookie of the year after averaging 10.8 points per game as a freshman. But when Dave Paulsen was fired as George Mason’s coach in 2021, Kolek opted to transfer.

Shaka Smart, who returned home to Wisconsin to coach at Marquette in 2021 after six uneven seasons at Texas, liked what he saw from and heard about Kolek.

“People value certain things in recruiting, and then there are certain things that they don’t value,” Smart said. “He has some of those intangible things. He’s more athletic than people think, he’s tougher, but I think it’s easier to just kind of look at a guy and make an evaluation. But he’s got certain things inside of him that you can’t measure.”

Kolek was named the most valuable player of the Big East tournament.Credit…Mark Smith/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Kolek is averaging 13.3 points and a Big East-best 7.7 assists per game, and his underdog mentality has transferred to the team.

After he went scoreless in the first half against St. John’s last Thursday in the Big East tournament, Kolek noticed a St. John’s fan forming his hand into a zero, holding up his arm so Kolek could see. He finished the game with 19 points, including the tiebreaking free throws with 15.8 seconds left in overtime.

“Every point that we scored, I looked at him,” he said of the St. John’s fan.

Reflecting on his son’s journey while watching the Marquette-St John’s game, Kevin Kolek said he would never have imagined that his son would be named the top player in the Big East during the regular season and tournament.

“It’s hard to believe, there’s so many good players in the Big East,” he said. “And if you look back at the legacy and history of the Big East, it’s unbelievable.”

The same year Marquette added Kolek, Smart also brought in two other key foundational players in Olivier-Maxence Prosper, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Clemson, and David Joplin, a 6-7 forward who had initially committed to Texas. Joplin was named the Big East sixth Man of the year, while Prosper averages 12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds and plays a key role defensively.

After being picked ninth in the Big East, Kolek has led Marquette to a 28-6 record and plans to bring the sizable chip on his shoulder to the field of 68.

“It means the world,” he said in a television interview after winning the Big East tournament. “Nobody thought we could win the regular season, nobody thought we could win the tournament. That chip just keeps growing, and we look to keep it going into the N.C.A.A. tournament.”

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