No. 5 Marquette ready to get defensive in opener with Northern Illinois

Anyone familiar with head coach Shaka Smart is not surprised No. 5 Marquette is ready to get defensive.

The Golden Eagles begin their Big East title defense on Nov. 6 when Northern Illinois makes the two-hour trek from DeKalb, Ill.

After winning the Big East regular-season championship and conference tournament, Marquette lost in the round of 32 to Michigan State. At the conference preseason media day in October, the Golden Eagles were picked to repeat as Big East conference champs.

But Smart and Marquette are all too familiar with the merit of preseason picks. They were selected to finish ninth in October 2022 polling.

“It really doesn’t matter to us what we’re picked,” Smart said. “Our motivation comes from within, we’re trying to come together to do something special for each other.”

Smart enters his third season at Marquette, leading the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two including the program’s first tournament win in 10 years. The success has earned his team much higher preseason expectations.

“One of the challenges is assumptions that something is going to be the same as last year,” Smart said. “Individually, every one of our returning players has gotten better, but it’s important for us to start from scratch from the standpoint of building our championship habits.”

Of the many key returners for Marquette, reigning Big East player of the year Tyler Kolek will be at the forefront once again. Kolek averaged 12.9 points per game along with 4.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists last season, good enough for third in the entire country.

“Everybody says experience wins in college basketball, our connectivity can be on a different level than everyone else,” Kolek said. “We’ve been in those moments, know how they feel. That’s a big advantage.”

Northern Illinois went 13-19 (9-9 Mid-American Conference) last season. Head coach Rashon Bruno enters his third season looking to build on modest success. The Huskies made the MAC tourney for the first time in three years in March.

“I wanted to be very competitive in the non-conference, we went out and challenged ourselves,” Bruno said. “Marquette is one of the best teams in the country, coach Smart is someone I have tremendous respect for.”

The Huskies return four starters and guard Keyshawn Williams returns. He went down with a torn ACL early in conference play but averaged 17.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in 15 games.

Other notable returnees include All-MAC guard David Coit — who averaged 15.5 points per game — and forward Harvin Ibarguen, who was third in the country in two-point field goal percentage last year (74.5 percent overall).

“Coit had a phenomenal summer and fall,” Bruno said. “We’re expecting big things from him not just in point total but also leadership. He’s taken that to heart, he understands he can score the ball but he has to be able to set the table.”

Marquette is 4-0 all-time against Northern Illinois. The most recent matchups were a 79-70 decision in 2017 and Marquette’s 80-66 win in 2021, with both of those games being held in Milwaukee.