Friday, October 27, 2017

Wichita State isn't trying to make a name for itself anymore

Myron Medcalf -
WICHITA, Kansas -- With his arm in a sling, Wichita State's Gregg Marshall marched around the Charles Koch Arena court and barked orders to the players on his roster.
Marshall, who underwent surgery to repair ligaments in his right shoulder this offseason, saved his most stern instructions for his freshmen during a September practice.
After fumbling through his assignment for the second consecutive play, 7-foot newcomer Asbjorn Midtgaard of Denmark didn't wait for Marshall to blow his whistle during a scrimmage. He caught one glare from the 54-year-old coach and spontaneously lined up to run wind sprints.
Marshall never holds back.
Marshall's "play angry" mantra and approach have turned Wichita State basketball into a national power with a legitimate opportunity to win the American Athletic Conference in its inaugural season with the league.
"He's obviously very fiery in practice," point guard Landry Shamet said. "He's a phenomenal coach and good guy."
With their seven top scorers from last season returning, the Shockers could finish the season in San Antonio at the Final Four.
Four years ago, Wichita State's run to the Final Four intensified the hype for a series between the Shockers and Kansas, the state's flagship school 160 miles away.
But that game hasn't happened. And it probably never will.
"It'll happen at some point -- probably not while Bill [Self] is the coach [at Kansas] and I'm the coach at [Wichita State]," Marshall said. "I'm not stressed about it, honestly. He's obviously not stressed about it."
But Wichita State does not need a series with Kansas -- which the Shockers defeated in the 2015 NCAA tournament -- or any other blue blood to validate its status as one of America's premier programs. That's the most impressive proof of progress under Marshall.
"I don't think we necessarily have to play anyone," Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright said. "I think the program Gregg has built, and the support we have, can stand on its own."
Last season, Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk blocked Shamet's 3-point attempt at the final buzzer of Wichita State's 65-62 loss to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Shamet finished with 20 points and one turnover against a squad that had three picks in last summer's lottery. That performance has led to the hype surrounding this season's Shockers.
"Going into that, it was just, 'I'm tired of people thinking we're some punks, like we can't play,'" Shamet said. "We show up every day. Our record speaks for itself. We beat good teams. We compete. We do all this stuff, and we're just as good, if not better, than everybody we play against. That was just my mindset going into that game. We hear all the talk, all the rankings, all the draft projections, and you're just like, 'That stuff didn't matter. I want to prove I'm better or just as good as them.'"
That battle with Kentucky changed the narrative about Wichita State.
"You look at some of the teams we beat. You're talking about blue bloods. You're talking about Kansas and Indiana. You're talking about Arizona, who we had by 20. Who beats Arizona by 20? Just tell me. We beat Kansas by 13. We beat Gonzaga. We beat Vandy and Pitt when Jamie Dixon was really good. Dayton last year. The only teams we lose to are Kentucky twice."
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall
But the Shockers will enter this season as an incomplete squad. Both Shamet and junior forward Markis McDuffie are nursing stress fractures in their right foot and left foot, respectively. Both players could miss the first month, but they're expected to play the bulk of this pivotal season.
Still, Wichita State can withstand the temporary absences of its top scorers from the past season. Marshall can move Conner Frankamp, the transfer from Kansas, to point guard while Shamet is sidelined. And the shifty Samajae Haynes-Jones, a junior college transfer and local product, played like a capable point-guard substitute in practice last month.
"I think we can win it all," McDuffie said. "That's the goal now. For years it's been just getting into the tournament, just getting wins. Nah, man. We have experience now. It's time to take that to another level. Coach has been really hard on us. He sees the potential. He's really motivating us to be the best we can be."
The mix of talented veterans and an explosive point guard feels familiar to the program's supporters. Wichita State relied on future pros Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early to secure a spot in the national semifinals in 2013. But postseason wins over Indiana, Kansas and Arizona since that Final Four berth have showed the college basketball world that the Shockers have earned their place at the game's head table.
"You look at some of the teams we beat," Marshall said. "You're talking about blue bloods. You're talking about Kansas and Indiana. You're talking about Arizona, who we had by 20. Who beats Arizona by 20? Just tell me. We beat Kansas by 13. We beat Gonzaga. We beat Vandy and Pitt when Jamie Dixon was really good. Dayton last year. The only teams we lose to are Kentucky twice."
When Marshall arrived from Winthrop in 2007, Mark Turgeon had just led Wichita State to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988 before accepting an offer from Texas A&M.
Under Marshall, the crowds grew along with the hoopla -- Wichita State finished 34th in Division I last season, with an average attendance of 10,738 -- but the team hadn't reached its goals six years into his tenure.
With the program celebrating a win that snapped a three-game losing streak during the 2012-13 season, former Wichita State and NBA standouts Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel approached Marshall and asked him if they could talk to the team.
That's the night the team's "play angry" motto was born.
"It was Antoine Carr," Marshall said. "They're the ones that actually came up with it. And they were pissed. They were pissed how our guys had played. I think we won the game, but we didn't play great. So Antoine uttered the words, 'Man, you gotta play angry!'"
The motto was adopted by a Wichita State squad that blossomed into that season's Cinderella, reaching the Final Four two months after Carr's speech and commencing a historic chapter in the program's history.
"Our fans have embraced that mantra," Boatright said. "Wichita, as a community, sometimes has a chip on its shoulder."
Marshall sharpened that edge and shifted his program, even as NCAA tournament appearances became the norm. He continues to question the NCAA tournament selection committee's view of schools outside the Power 5, especially after the Shockers were assigned a 10-seed following last season's 31-5 campaign.
"I don't know if me complaining about it and being real and telling the truth bothers them -- them being the selection committee," he said. "I don't know if it's just a lack of respect for the conference we were in [the Missouri Valley Conference]. I don't know if, honestly, they just don't really want non-Power 5 teams in the tournament ... because every year it seems to be less and less, and then they put them together, like us playing Dayton."
That might invigorate Wichita State's backers. But the team's ongoing success and fan support are what attracted officials from the American conference. When Mike Aresco, the league's commissioner, visited Wichita State for a welcoming ceremony earlier this month, a strong contingent of fans ignored heavy rainfall to attend.
The Shockers are the lone non-football school in the conference, but Aresco said Wichita State's basketball brand is powerful and will strengthen the conference. He said he hopes the addition of Wichita State will also allow the league to push its "Power 6" narrative.
"Mainly," Aresco said of the Shockers, "they've become an iconic name in basketball."
That's why Marshall stays.
A conversation in his spacious office feels like a pitch from the local welcoming committee. He touts the city's position as an aviation hub known as the "Air Capital of the World." He loves its schools and neighborhoods, components in the city's current ranking of 68th in the "best places to live in the USA," per U.S. News and World Report.
He lives on a lake, next to a golf course, reasonable luxuries for a man who makes $3 million per season, more than Iowa State's Steve Prohm ($1.5 million) and Xavier's Chris Mack ($1.4 million) combined. His buddy Charles Koch is worth nearly $50 billion and is generous with his donations to the program, which the billionaire supported by contributing $6 million to a massive arena renovation 15 years ago.
Koch also reportedly put cash in the pot to keep Marshall, who made $1.85 million per season when he attracted a $4.2 million per season offer to coach Alabama in 2015.
The increase raised Marshall's salary to $3 million. That boost placed Marshall among the 10 highest-paid basketball coaches in America.
Marshall uses private jets to recruit, just like his Power 5 peers. He has rejected multiple offers in recent years to keep a gig he believes can compete with any job in the country and one he intends to keep, perhaps until he retires.
And if Wichita State -- again -- fulfills expectations, why would he ever leave?
"Here, we've put ourselves in a position in this program where it's a destination job, and I'll be able to live any lifestyle that we choose when that day comes, when we decide to hang up the whistle," he said. "Now, some people say, 'How can that be a destination job?' Come see what we've got going. Come see the type of young people that I get to coach every single day. I'm not dealing with handlers. I'm not dealing with the street agents. I'm dealing with dudes that want to do it right."


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