MILWAUKEE — Tyler Kolek adopted the acuity and audacity that defines his game with every bruise he took playing against his older brother while growing up in Rhode Island.
Kolek was two years younger than his brother, Brandon, but wanted to prove he was every bit as good. The two brothers stopped playing one-on-one by the time they reached high school since each matchup inevitably ended with a scuffle.
“We were both really competitive,” recalled Brandon Kolek, who just finished his final season at Division II school Franklin Pierce. “I’d be bigger than him so I would post him up, and he would get mad that I’m doing that and he can’t stop it. So a couple of punches are thrown, a couple of elbows are thrown and it would just turn to an all-out fight after that.”
Kolek’s fearlessness has been a hallmark of Marquette’s stunningly successful season.
The approach also helped Kolek develop from a mid-major prospect into the Big East player of the year who led Marquette to its first Big East outright regular-season title and tournament championship since joining the conference for the 2005-06 season. Now he wants to help Marquette get beyond the opening round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Marquette (28-6) is the No. 2 seed in the East Region and faces Vermont (23-10) on Friday.
“I’ve just got to be a chip-on-my-shoulder kind of guy,” Kolek said. “That’s where I feel like it comes from. Just being that underdog, that under-recruited guy, you’ve got to have some gumption to you.”
Kolek definitely has that. It was apparent well before the season.
When he was asked at Big East media day what he thought about the league’s coaches picking Marquette to finish ninth out of 11 teams, Kolek offered a two-word response. The second word was an abbreviated version of “them.” The first word was an expletive.
"I thought that was hilarious,” his brother said. “It just goes to show who he is. He doesn’t really care about what anybody says. He’s going to do what he’s got to do, no matter what.”
Kolek has the game to back up his bravado.
Marquette boasts one of the nation’s most efficient offenses because its starting lineup features two outstanding passers in Kolek and 6-foot-11 forward Oso Ighodaro. Kolek ranks among the top five Division I players in assists per game (7.7) and assist-turnover ratio (3.22).
Kolek inherited those passing skills from his father, Kevin Kolek, who dished out 6 assists per game from 1984-88 while helping UMass Dartmouth earn three straight Division III NCAA Tournament appearances.
“He knows what the defense is going to do, and he can just read what’s going to happen two, three steps ahead,” teammate David Joplin said.
Kolek already had proved himself as a distributor last year by collecting 5.9 assists per game. The questions surrounded his shooting, which led to a rare crisis in confidence.
After Kolek played one season at George Mason, the firing of Dave Paulsen caused him to enter the transfer portal. Marquette coach Shaka Smart said he called Kolek to make his pitch the day he got the job.
Kolek shot just 32% overall and 28.1% from 3-point range his first year at Marquette after shooting 39.9% overall and 35.8% from beyond the arc at George Mason. For once in his life, that swagger was missing.
“I was miserable last year, honestly,” Kolek said. “I kind of let basketball determine my whole mood on and off the court. As you grow and learn as a person, you understand you’re more than just the game. You’re a human being, too.”
Kolek’s father had faith Tyler’s shot would return because he knew his son’s work ethic.
Kevin Kolek noted how he came back from dinner one recent Saturday night at about 11 p.m. and called his son, who was in the gym even though Marquette had played a game early that afternoon.
“He lives in the gym,” Kevin Kolek said. “I knew it would turn around.”
Sure enough, Kolek is shooting 48.3% from the floor and 39.4% from 3-point range, helping his scoring average improve from 6.7 last season to 13.3 this year.
“It’s so much fun to see him out there with no hesitation,” Smart said. “Because that was the biggest challenge last year. When he got off to a tough start, he hesitated a little bit when he was open, and then it snowballed a little bit. This year, particularly during the second half of the season, there’s been none of that.”
That’s changing the way opponents defend Marquette.
“Teams aren’t going under screens as much as they did last year,” Ighodaro said. “Tyler put so much work into his shot that any time teams go under, we want him to shoot that shot. He’s a good shooter. It’s really opened our offense up.”
It’s also opened Kolek up.
Smart says the biggest growth Kolek has shown is in his leadership, citing a recent example in which the third-year sophomore took Stevie Mitchell out to eat on his birthday. That’s not the only way Kolek has shown his personality.
He’s even found a way to profit off his preseason statement. Kolek has a website selling T-shirts including a censored version of his media day comment on the Big East preseason poll.
His marketing skills reveal the same brashness he consistently brings to the court.
“I like to go out and play like that every day and practice like that every day,” Kolek said. “That’s just who I am.”
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