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‘The madness is here’: Marquette University basketball ready to shine in March Madness tournaments

Men's and women's teams both play Friday

Marquette's Tyler Kolek celebrates with his teammates.
Marquette’s Tyler Kolek, center, the tournament’s most outstanding player, celebrates with his teammates after winning an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier for the championship of the Big East men’s tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in New York. John Minchillo/AP Photo

On a cold winter day in March, Vevette Hill-Nwagbaraocha stood outside for over an hour with dozens of other fans and students, waiting for two buses to leave.

Those buses were filled with players and coaching staff of the Marquette University men’s and women’s basketball teams, both on their way to play in the first round of the March Madness tournament Friday.

Hill-Nwagbaraocha, the assistant director of the campus ministry, was born and raised in Milwaukee and has always supported Marquette basketball teams in the past. That’s why she felt inclined to cheer on her university as they headed to the airport on a chilly Wednesday afternoon.

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“That’s why we’re here. To make sure that they have the heart of the community to go in there and get it done. To give it all they got,” Hill-Nwagbaraocha said. “All they need to do is leave it all on the floor, and it’s going to turn out the way it’s supposed to.”

The Marquette men’s basketball team has had a historic season filled with stunning victories and comeback wins. That led to them earning a No. 2 seed in the tournament, the highest they’ve ever been ranked in the 84-year history of the tournament. They’ll play the 15-seed University of Vermont on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

Marquette players and staff hold the championship trophy.
Marquette players and staff hold the championship trophy after winning an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier for the championship of the Big East men’s tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in New York. John Minchillo/AP Photo

Before the season began, Marquette was ranked 76th in the nation, according to the projection website KenPom.com. At the end of the regular season, Marquette finished No. 6 in The Associated Press poll released this week.

It’s not their first time in the tournament, which has been given the nickname the “Big Dance.” In fact, they’ve been there 35 times before — but for many, this time feels different.

“It’s been pretty special this year,” senior forward Michael Kennedy said during a press conference Wednesday.

Kennedy, who is playing in the tournament for the second time, is the longest-tenured player on the team. He grew up in Mequon and attended Homestead High School.

“This year, our team’s been a really tight-knit group, really connected with our relationships, and that’s been probably the best thing about this year,” he said. “Everyone likes to be around each other, hanging out, and that’s helped us out on the court.”

Marquette head coach Shaka Smart holds a piece of the net.
Marquette head coach Shaka Smart holds a piece of the net after winning an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier for the championship of the Big East men’s tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in New York. John Minchillo/AP Photo

The squad is led by Madison native Shaka Smart, who’s in just his second season with the team. Smart is also no stranger to the tournament — in 2011, he led 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth University to the Final Four. It’s still regarded as one of the best “Cinderella Story” runs of all time.

“We want to do everything we can under our control to advance,” Smart said about his team Wednesday.

The first round of the men’s and women’s tournament will each see 68 total teams — and the games will take over three weeks to finish. Just 19 percent of Division 1 men’s teams make the tournament every year.

Smart said he doesn’t take that for granted. He also said the team’s chemistry, on and off the court, is the main reason for their success.

“Our guys’ No. 1 advantage all season long has been pouring into one another and helping each other be better and that’s what’s going to allow us to be at our best Friday afternoon,” Smart said.

The women’s team is the No. 9 seed in their tournament. They’ll face No. 8 seed University of South Florida on Friday in South Carolina. Megan Duffy, the head coach of the Marquette women’s basketball team, said she’s excited for the team and her players.

“The madness is here,” she said Wednesday. “It’s just a special time of year — the energy, the excitement around both programs here at Marquette, our campus, our community, we’re excited to go.”

Marquette forward Liza Karlen runs down the court.
Marquette forward Liza Karlen (32) runs down the court against Creighton during an NCAA basketball game on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. John Peterson/AP Photo

The Marquette women’s team has also had a historic year, earning its two highest-ranked wins in program history, defeating then-No. 3 Texas and then-No. 4 UConn during the regular season.

Duffy said it’s been fun to watch the success of the men’s team.

“It’s awesome to see Marquette nation, fans in the community, our actual student body on campus, all the people that love Marquette so much — just to have both basketball programs in an awesome spot here in March is tremendous,” she said.

‘We are Marquette’

The men’s team is led by junior guard Tyler Kolek, who won the Big East player of the year award this season. Forward David Joplin, a Milwaukee native, is another leader on the team, winning the Big East Sixth Man award — an accolade given to effective players off the bench.

Last week, Marquette, who went 28-6 during the regular season, won its first Big East title since joining the conference in 2005. The team is on a 9-game winning streak with no signs of slowing down. Some national projections even have the team going to the championship game, or winning it all. Hill-Nwagbaraocha said she thinks it’s a likely possibility.

“We are Marquette. That says it all,” she said.

Marquette men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart talks to the media on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Evan Casey/WPR

Smart said he believes the team will win the tournament if they continue playing the way they did during the regular season.

“We are a program that prides ourselves on our enthusiasm, not just for the results but for our process,” he said. “What we need to do is follow our process — nothing changes now that we’re in March, other than the stakes and there’s more people interested in what we’re doing now than there was before.”

Women’s team junior forward Liza Karlen said her team just needs to take it one day at a time.

“It’s really, really easy to get caught up in the future and what’s next or who we would play if we were to win on Friday. But it’s really important to keep the one day at a time, one game at a time mentality,” Karlen said.

‘On the map’

Marquette women’s basketball coach Megan Duffy speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Evan Casey/WPR 

The tournament is one of the biggest sports events in the nation every year. Last year, an average of 10.7 million viewers tuned in to watch. That’s a 13 percent increase on the previous year’s figures, according to Statista.

Not only will millions watch Marquette play in the tournament, but millions of dollars will also be sent to universities across the nation, including Marquette, as the NCAA brings in over $1 billion from the event, which they then distribute to individual conferences and universities.

Brian Troyer, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Marquette University, said the impact of Marquette’s teams appearing in the tournament will reach far and wide.

“For me, it really is just an amazing opportunity for Marquette University to be showcased on a national level,” he said.

The university has over 115,000 alumni globally. It’s also the largest private university or college in Wisconsin.

“To now have the national spotlight with Marquette as a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, it really does shine a very positive light, not just only on the accomplishments of this team, but of the institution as well,” Troyer said.

Marquette's Kam Jones takes a foul shot.
Marquette’s Kam Jones (1) takes a foul shot in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier for the championship of the Big East men’s tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in New York. John Minchillo/AP Photo

Troyer said there’s not a direct correlation to an increase in student enrollment for events like this, but he did say it doesn’t hurt. Marquette will also likely air commercials showcasing the university during the games they appear in.

“When events like this happen, I think what it does is it draws positive attention to some universities who sometimes high school students aren’t really thinking about,” he said.

Troyer said it can make high schoolers who have already accepted offers for Marquette even more excited to be enrolled. It can also put the university “on the map” for other students who are still thinking about where to go for college.