INDIANAPOLIS – Now that No. 6 Marquette has secured the regular-season Big East championship, more accolades could follow.
It would be hard to pick against Tyler Kolek for Big East player of the year or Shaka Smart for conference coach of the year.
Kolek had 21 points and 10 assists, and Marquette clinched its first outright conference title in 20 years by beating Butler 72-56 on Tuesday night.
Heading into the game, Kolek, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard from Cumberland, R.I., was second in the NCAA in assists (7.8 per game). Over the past nine games, he has averaged 18.2 points. He shot 9 of 13 from the field and 2 for 3 on 3-pointers against the Bulldogs.
“To me, he’s the MVP of the Big East. He makes that team go,” Butler coach Thad Matta said. “He’s such an intelligent basketball player. He’s got a great pulse on that team. It looks like they really feed off him, and he embraces that leadership.”
The victory was the fifth in a row and 10th in 11 games for the surprising Golden Eagles (24-6, 16-3), picked ninth by the league’s coaches in the preseason poll.
This week, Marquette ascended to its highest ranking in the AP Top 25 since it was No. 1 in 1978.
Marquette, which had already earned at least a share of its first Big East title since 2013, had not won an outright regular-season crown since doing so in Conference USA in 2003.
Olivier-Maxence Prosper added 14 points and Oso Ighodaro had 12 for the Golden Eagles, who will be the top seed in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden – an event Marquette has never won.
The Golden Eagles will open in the quarterfinals March 9 against the winner of a first-round game between Butler and St. John’s.
“The calendar is about to turn to March,” Smart said. “We’re very excited about winning the Big East regular season. But we’re not done.”
The 45-year-old Smart, in his second season at Marquette after six each at VCU and Texas, won his first regular-season league championship in 14 years as a Division I head coach.
He said he is not one to “politic” for individual awards, but offered this assessment of Kolek:
“I would say that he has been as impactful for winning as anyone in our league. And there’s a lot of really good players in our league.”
In the second half, the Golden Eagles shot 65% (15 of 23) from the floor and led by as many as 24 points.
Jayden Taylor scored 13 and Jalen Thomas had 10 for Butler (14-16, 6-13), which finished 4-6 in Big East home games.
Butler shot 0 of 10 while going scoreless for nearly nine minutes in falling behind 16-6. After the Bulldogs closed to 18-13, Marquette went on a 14-3 spurt to seize a 32-16 lead.
Butler was never closer than 11 points thereafter.
Marquette shot 72% (13 for 18) on 2-pointers in claiming a 36-22 halftime advantage. Kolek had 11 points at the break.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles made the biggest jump in the history of the Big East preseason poll. In 1989-90, Connecticut was picked eighth and tied Syracuse for first place.
“We never really talked about winning the Big East championship,” Smart said. “It was never a point of emphasis. We did talk about being picked ninth. We thought we were better than that.”
Marquette’s 16 league wins are the most in school history. For the first time, the Golden Eagles defeated every league opponent at least once.
Butler: In the first season of Thad Matta’s second coaching stint at Butler, the Bulldogs would have to win Saturday at No. 19 Xavier and then twice in the Big East Tournament to avoid a third successive losing season.
Butler was 14-19 (7-13 Big East) last season and 10-15 (8-12) in 2020-21. The school has not won an NCAA tournament game since 2013.
Butler center Manny Bates was back in the lineup after missing two games with a shoulder injury. Another Butler regular, wing Ali Ali, was sidelined by concussion protocol for the second time this season.
Marquette: Closes the regular season Saturday at home against St. John’s.
Butler: Plays at No. 19 Xavier on Saturday.