As I wrapped up my final question to Marquette's Zach Wrightsil, teammates Tyler Kolek and Osa Ighodaro gestured to one another behind him. Curious, I looked behind me to see what they were pointing at. It was the board directly in front of their booth with the Big East Preseason Coaches' Poll on it.
Their team sat near the bottom, in ninth place out of 11 teams.
I turned back to ask the group what they thought about that. Kolek looked me eye-to-eye and did not hesitate in his response.
Those two words perfectly encapsulate the attitude Shaka Smart's Marquette team brings. Tabbed to finish ninth in the Big East last season, the Golden Eagles didn't care that they were seemingly counted out of any chance to avoid a Wednesday game at Madison Square Garden.
Instead, they became the talk of the Big East through the first half of conference play behind a defense that regularly ripped the ball away from opponents. Marquette tallied off seven consecutive wins, including a blowout win over eventual regular season champion Providence and a gritty road victory at Jay Wright's last Villanova team, and ended the season four spots higher than their projection, safely out of Wednesday at MSG and safely in for Thursday at March Madness.
"Every night, it's gonna be a war."
Shaka Smart knows exactly the kind of energy you need to bring to win in the Big East. That's why he brought in the fiery Kolek from George Mason. The point guard led Marquette in steals in his first year in Milwaukee, routinely screwing up opposing offenses and operating as an emotional spark-plug for the team. Now in year two, Smart nabbed NAIA Player of the Year Zach Wrightsil to bring more of that energy to Milwaukee.
"I think his competitive character, who he is as a person, is a big part of what is going to allow him to make the adjustment."
Smart is confident in Wrightsil's ability to make the jump from Loyola New Orleans to Marquette. Last year, he was the most dominant player at his level. He led his conference in total points, total rebounds, and shooting percentage and finished the season the program's single-season leader in both points and rebounds.
Wrightsil did all of that while playing elite defense in a high-tempo, press-heavy scheme. The forward lined up all over the floor and harassed opposing offenses to the tune of more than two steals per night. He finished his career second in all-time steals for the program.
What stands out when you watch the tape, though, isn't the numbers Wrightsil put up. It's the intangibles. The toughness. The attitude. "Just being aggressive and being everywhere on the floor, flying around," is how the fifth-year transfer described it. That's the kind of player you need when every game is a battle. The same attitude Kolek displayed when dismissing the preseason rankings.
Will Marquette exceed expectations yet again this season? I don't know. But what I do know is that, behind their energetic head coach, these brash Golden Eagles will never count themselves out in any situation. They have no issue being the underdogs. In fact, they're used to it. If every game is a war, it will be because they made it so. That's how they like it.