WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS BASKETBALL
The circle of life, in terms of college basketball coaches, almost always involves someone cutting their teeth at a tiny mid-major school, leading said mid-major to NCAA Tournament appearances and memorable best shockers of college basketball “blue bloods,” and then working their way up the proverbial food chain until they themselves are given the opportunity to coach one of those “blue blood” programs they made a career of defeating. Head coach Gregg Marshall of the Wichita State Shockers basketball team is no different.
After Marshall got his first head coaching job at Winthrop University in 1998, he led his Eagles to seven NCAA tournament appearances, seven Big South Tournament titles, six 20-win seasons, and upsets over heavily favored programs like the University of Tennessee and Notre Dame University in the NCAA Tournament.
Naturally, schools started knocking on his door, wondering if he’d come do for them what he did for Winthrop. In his 10 years as the Eagles head coach, he turned down at least nine different job offers. But the 10th time must have been the charm, as he accepted an offer to become the 25th head coach of the Wichita State men’s basketball team.
BECOMING NATIONALLY KNOWN
By the end of the 2011 season, Marshall put the Shockers back on the national radar, when they won 29 games, finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference, and upset two top seeds en route to winning the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). That win would serve as the springboard towards making the Shockers the most respected — and feared — “mid-major” program in the nation.
First, the Shockers avenged their second-place conference finish the year before, winning the regular season Missouri Valley title with a 16-2 conference record, and climbing up to a ranking as high as #14 in the NCAA coaches poll. While they did make the NCAA Tournament that spring for the first time under Marshall, they fell victim to the dreaded “5-12 upset” in the opening round, when they were beaten by another noted “giant killer”: Virginia Commonwealth University, led by Shaka Smart.
That’s when the reinforcements came; specifically, two guys who would go down as two of the greatest players in the history of the program: point guard Fred VanVleet, and shooting guard Ron Baker. Both players made their debut in 2012, and the back-court duo represented the rock in which this ascendant national power was built upon.
Wichita State Shockers basketball was supposed to take a step back that season, and appeared to be a long-shot to make the NCAA Tournament in the eyes of college basketball pundits. But the young duo clearly didn’t get the message. The Shockers finished the 2012-2013 season with the most wins in the history of the program (30), and despite being handed a #9 seed in the tournament — meaning they’d have to face to face a #1 seed (who happened to be another powerful “mid-major” foe in Gonzaga University) in the opening weekend of the tournament — Gonzaga advanced all the way to the Final Four, defeating Gonzaga and Ohio State University in the process. They fell in their Final Four game Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville, who won it all that spring.
Over the next three seasons, Marshall, Baker, and VanVleet would lead the Shockers to three more NCAA Tournament appearances, a trip to the Sweet 16 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, and their highest national ranking (#2) in program history in 2014. During the 2013-2014 season, the Shockers became just the 11th Division I team to start the season 31–0, and ran the table during the 2014 Missouri Valley Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament, winning all three games by double digits. It was the first time Wichita State won the Valley Tournament since 1987. However, they were sent home prematurely when John Calipari and the University of Kentucky Wildcats upset the Shockers in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, in a game that will be talked about for years.
VanVleet and Baker finished their careers in Wichita with a second-straight Conference regular season championship and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they weren’t ever able to again capture the magic of their Final Four run from their freshman year.
Instead, it’ll be up to the current group of Shockers to heed Marshall’s guidance, and build on the successes of their predecessors. And this year, they’ll be doing so in a brand new “home” of sorts. Wichita State accepted an invitation last spring to join the American Athletic Conference, ending a relationship with the Missouri Valley Conference that dated 72 years.
Sophomore guard Landry Shamet has taken the torch from VanVleet, and could be one of the best floor generals in the country. the Missouri Valley Rookie of the Year offers an excellent blend of positional size at 6-4, shooting versatility and a strong feel for the game, and looked like one of the best players on the court when the Shockers played the University of Kentucky in last season’s NCAA Tournament. If he can stay on the floor this season — he suffered a fifth metatarsal stress fracture in his right foot and was forced to have surgery in the off-season — Shamet should have a big year as the alpha dog of the Shockers.
Of course, Wichita State isn’t like Kentucky, where the stars define the program. Rather, this program is infused by Marshall’s “play angry” credo, manifested in the way relentless defensive pressure the Shockers apply on their opponents.
Last year, the Shockers were one of the best teams in the country, but despite winning 31 games, were inexplicably given a #10 seed in the NCAA Tournament (facilitating their dismissal by Kentucky in the second round of the tournament).
With their seven top scorers from last season returning, Wichita State has a legitimate opportunity to win the American Athletic Conference in its inaugural season with the league. This year’s version of Wichita State basketball has a chance to be the best shockers team in the history of the program. Gregg Marshall and his team are a strong contender to be cutting down the nets on the last Monday of the college basketball season.
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