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College basketball: Betting on himself — hard work, dedication pay off for Cumberland’s Tyler Kolek

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NEW YORK — What about the dog? Who’s going to watch it?

Fear not, Lynn Kolek was told. When the Bunsen burner was turned up on the possibility of the Big East tabbing Cumberland’s Tyler Kolek as men’s basketball player of the year, Lynn was informed not to worry. Go to Madison Square Garden for Wednesday’s formal announcement. Brady — the family’s labradoodle — would be in good hands.

“We have six people going in [the house] to check because they wanted us to enjoy this moment fully,” she said.

That unwavering support from the Cumberland community was justified with Wednesday’s news that Kolek was deemed the Big East’s top individual talent for the 2022-23 season. Sitting in the front row where the afternoon news conference took place was Lynn along with Kevin Kolek, the always-supportive father, and older brother Brandon. All three were sporting Marquette University gear.

“My dad and my brother, I don’t know how many hours we’ve spent in the gym. My mom sacrificing so she can be at my games … it was special to see all of them in the crowd. It gets me emotional,” said Kolek.

Marquette’s entire team was also present for a memorable moment for a program that separated itself from the rest of the Big East pack.

The Golden Eagles arrived at this week’s Big East Tournament as the top seed after capturing the regular-season crown by two games. The player who was primarily responsible for helping Marquette take a blowtorch to the preseason forecast was told to pack a dress suit just in case all the player of the year scuttlebutt turned into something concrete, though Kolek had an idea of how he would spend part of his Wednesday before setting foot in the World’s Most Famous Arena.

“It just goes to show how connected we are as a team,” said Kolek, noting he was told of the honor via video presentation after Tuesday’s practice.

Betting on himself has always been one of Kolek’s top attributes — his confidence and swagger were cited before Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman presented him with the trophy that Brandon Kolek joked would be a perfect centerpiece for Easter dinner.

Looking back at the rungs he climbed the past several years, it took some time before college coaches came around on a left-handed player who possessed a sweet shot. When Kolek announced in the spring of 2018 that he was transferring from Cumberland High School to St. George’s School in Middletown, he had one scholarship offer in his back pocket, from Bryant University.

“I could never imagine being in Madison Square Garden, going up on that stage as Big East Player of the Year,” said Kolek. “Just hard work and dedication. Even during winter break, my brother and I were working in the gym. You’ve got to stack days together just to get where you want to get to.

“I think the game is giving it back to me right now,” he added.

Three individuals who weren’t on hand for Wednesday’s presentation that Kolek made sure to thank were Mike Crotty (AAU’s Middlesex Magic), Dwayne Pina (St. George’s head coach), and C.J. Ward (St. George’s assistant coach).

“Different guys at different stages of my life,” said Kolek.

Noted Kevin Kolek, “So many people have played a part in this journey.”

Kolek’s initial recruitment out of high school featured 22 scholarship offers. After electing to enter the transfer portal in March 2021 — Kolek did so after winning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in his lone season at George Mason — he received significant interest. Power Five schools from across the country tried to secure a player who, thanks to the pandemic, would arrive at his next destination with four years of eligibility.

Of all the coaches whom Kolek heard from during his second bite at the recruiting apple, the bond he formed with the head coach who took over at Marquette proved to be the strongest. Shaka Smart was the first member of the Marquette staff to reach out, and he quickly formed a bond with his future starting guard.

Looking back, Kolek took a bet on Smart and vice versa. In two years of working side by side, the Golden Eagles have achieved plenty of winning — 28 Big East wins in 39 chances. The head coach also accepted his flowers Wednesday as Big East Coach of the Year.

“He’s like a father figure to me,” Kolek said when asked about Smart. “I would do anything for him. He would do anything for me.”

The fact that Kolek has won two Big East assist crowns in as many seasons is a testament to his ability of putting his Marquette teammates in prime scoring opportunities. Yet for his 7.9 assists average that ranks second nationally, there’s a player who’s worked hard to become a scorer that needed to be respected. After averaging 6.7 points per game on 32% shooting in his first year with the Golden Eagles, Kolek rose to average 12.7 points on 49% from the field. His 3-point shot has also experienced a significant upswing — from 28% last year to 40%.

“You can’t pigeonhole Tyler in being an assist man. He’s so multi-dimensional as a player. If you could describe him in one word, the word would be ‘winner,’” Smart said. “He’s a winning guy. He makes other people around him better.”

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