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March Madness leads Marquette's Shaka Smart, the former Longhorns coach, back to Texas again

DALLAS (AP) — Marquette coach Shaka Smart can't seem to escape his time in Texas when it comes to signature moments with the Golden Eagles in the NCAA Tournament.

Smart is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since taking VCU from the First Four to the Final Four 13 years ago, and it's been two years since he reached the NCAAs in his first season at Marquette.

Once again, Smart is about 200 miles from the campus of the Texas Longhorns, this time in Dallas following a first-round blowout loss to North Carolina in 2022 about 30 miles west in Fort Worth.

Smart didn't win an NCAA Tournament game in six seasons in Austin, which is why there were questions about his future following a shocking loss to Abilene Christian in 2021. He made the first move by taking the Marquette job.

Three NCAA victories later — including a tight second-rounder over Colorado last weekend — Smart is dodging shadows again as third-seeded Marquette (27-9) prepares to face No. 11 seed North Carolina State (24-14) in the South Regional on Friday night.

But now there's a chance to cut down the nets in the state where March Madness has mostly been sad for him.

“When the season started, I always do this, I look up the NCAA Tournament sites,” Smart said. “So today we could be in five places. We could be in Detroit, Boston, LA, Dallas, or be in Milwaukee because the season is over. I would have taken any of those first four.”

A year ago, after the Golden Eagles lost to Michigan State in the second round following the program's first tournament victory in 10 years, the Longhorns reached the Elite Eight before losing to Miami.

There were still enough Texas ties for Smart to enjoy that run by the Longhorns vicariously. Now he's in position to do something that helped him get the Texas job in the first place.

“He doesn’t really say too much about it to us,” leading scorer Kam Jones said. “I know as a person, as a competitor, as a man, he thinks about it. It means something to him. That kind of just goes into our team goal of we want to win. We all want to win one for Coach, want to win for each other. We want this bad.”

Chase Ross, a sophomore from Dallas, was recruited by Smart to go to Texas before deciding to join him at Marquette. He didn't even know the Golden Eagles could end up in his hometown until they reached Indianapolis for the first and second rounds.

So a celebration on Sunday would mean a little more for Ross and Smart, regardless of whether they would say so.

“He’s a cool, calm and collected guy,” Ross said of his coach. “He stays true to himself. With him being in the state he’s in and telling us what he needs from us, I think we’ll be fine.”

No matter how many times Smart ends up back in Texas chasing an NCAA title, he will always downplay the connection. His players understand, but know better than to ignore it.

Jones hadn't really thought about the idea of a Texas celebration until a reporter brought it up.

“I’m sure it would be kind of bittersweet for him, pretty good experience for him to be able to do that,” Jones said. “In order for us to do that, we have to do what we have to do Friday.”

So, first things first. Sounds like something Smart would say.

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