Marquette basketball coaches Shaka Smart and Megan Duffy welcome back students as excitement builds for the new year

Ben Steele
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There was no glitz and glamour for the Marquette basketball teams last season.

Due to COVID-19 protocols, fans weren't allowed at Fiserv Forum or the Al McGuire Center until the last few games. The cascading sounds of the MU band at Fiserv were replaced by piped-in noise and songs that echoed around the corners of the empty arena. Scoring runs that are usually energized by crowd noise seemed to fizzle out.

The teams hope that atmosphere changes this season. MU plans on returning to full capacity for basketball games, though the school is certainly eyeing the rising COVID-19 cases in the state.

MU started classes Monday and new men's coach Shaka Smart and women's coach Megan Duffy took the opportunity to engage with students by handing out granola bars and fruit cups in the morning at the Sendik's Fresh2GO on campus.

Smart, who was hired in March, finally got to meet students who could be screaming in the stands at Fiserv when he coaches his first game with MU against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Nov. 9.

Marquette University men's basketball coach Shaka Smart, second right, hands out fruit cups to students at the Sendik's Fresh2Go Marquette parking lot on campus in Milwaukee on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Smart along with Marquette University president Michael Lovell, center, head women's basketball coach Megan Duffy, far left, Sendik's Fresh2Go owner Ted Balistreri, second to the left, and the Marquette mascot Iggy, handed out 400 donated breakfasts from Sendik's to Marquette students on the first day of classes.

"It's nice to be around people," Smart said. "Last year was just strange. Everything being online. Everyone being stuck in their homes."

Duffy is entering her third season at MU and recently signed a contract extension through the 2026-27 season. Duffy is glad things on campus are feeling more normal.

"I noticed it last week with the freshmen moving in and just the people walking by the Al McGuire Center that we probably haven't seen for a year and a half," Duffy said. "Just everybody's super excited and friendly and ready to have a great school year."

Having all their players back on campus also means that preparations for the season begin to ramp up. The women's team also starts on Nov. 9 against Alcorn State at the Al McGuire Center.

"I know we're looking forward to the work ahead," Duffy said. "I think that's the big thing, we kind of put our blinders on at some point and get in that gym and start getting better. I know we don't have any questions what the student body will look like come November, coming to games. I know everybody's thrilled to come back and show their spirit to all our teams."

Smart and his staff brought in nine new players, with only senior Greg Elliott, sophomore Justin Lewis and sophomore Oso Ighodaro returning. 

"I was looking back at some notes from eight to 10 years ago," Smart said. "And we didn't even get to do summer workouts at that point before the NCAA rule change (in 2012). You never really feel like you're ahead, but you certainly have spent more time on the court with them than you would have a decade ago.

"Everybody's new. We're new. It's going to take some time for everybody to come together. But that's why we're here."

Duffy also has seen some changes from the team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Co-Big East defensive player of the year Selena Lott decided against a fifth season of eligibility and Camryn Taylor and Taylor Valladay both transferred to Virginia. Duffy brought in two transfers in Karissa McLaughlin and Kennedi Myles as well as freshman Makiyah Williams. The Golden Eagles also have two new assistant coaches, Kelly Komara and Tasha Taylor.

"It's going to take some time for us, too," Duffy said. "Continuing to find that chemistry and that jell. It's a long season. It's a marathon, right? You want to be peaking for conference time in March. So we want to strategically do that and not get too high or too low early on."

Marquette University women's basketball players Chloe Marotta, left and Claire Kaifes, far right, get free breakfast at the Sendik's Fresh2Go Marquette parking lot on campus in Milwaukee on Monday. Marquette University men's basketball coach Shaka Smart along with Marquette University president Michael Lovell, head women's basketball coach Megan Duffy and Sendik's Fresh2Go owner Ted Balistreri handed out 400 donated breakfasts from Sendik's to Marquette students on the first day of classes.

There's still a few months before MU hoops fans pack back into the gyms, but the crackle of excitement is starting to spread.

"For us, it's still a period of getting to know each other, literally," Smart said. "Knowing about who we're coaching and who we're spending time around.

"Being in the gym. Being outside the gym. Now with school starting, getting a chance to see our guys being a part of this greater community. Because the summer's always pretty much just our teams. Not many other people around. So that's going to be exciting."