Night Line: Unbeaten Season Ends, But Gregg Marshall is Building Something Special In WichitaPosted by BHayes on December 14th, 2012
Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is is an RTC correspondent and Night Line columnist. He filed this report after Thursday night’s Wichita State – Tennessee game in Knoxville.
The 2011-12 college basketball season was a breakout year for the Wichita State Shockers. Sure, college basketball enthusiasts had taken note of an NIT title run in 2011, but Gregg Marshall’s bunch didn’t truly enter the national consciousness until that 27-5 season a year ago which included a 17-1 stretch to open the calendar year. They became a trendy March sleeper pick pre-Tournament, but ultimately met the fate that so many five seeds before them have suffered – an opening round loss, this one at the hands of a dangerous VCU squad. It was a bitter end to a banner year, and the conclusion was undoubtedly worsened by the fact that WSU’s top five scorers would all be lost to graduation. From an outsider’s perspective, there was a real sense that the window had closed for Wichita State; Marshall’s program had grown up along with Murry, Stutz, Kyles and co., so it stood to reason that their departures would force a step or two back this season.
Well, so much for reason. Wichita State opened this season with nine straight wins, and despite suffering its first loss of the year tonight at the hands of Tennessee, has started to prove that last year was far from a once-in-a-blue-moon dream season. Role players of a season ago have proven capable of hoisting a greater burden, newcomers have stepped in and produced from day one, and the head coach has to have the feeling that he is in the process of building a program with true lasting power. Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Wichita State has reloaded so quickly, as the past two offseasons have seen Marshall turn down overtures from power conference schools (most notably Nebraska this past summer). Have the proposed fits simply not been right, or does Marshall believe he has something special going at Wichita State? We can’t know for sure, but it’s quite plausible that Marshall is simply content in Wichita, and even harbors notions of turning Wichita State into a reliable mid-major power. The concept of an established coach settling in at a mid-major program is no longer a novelty, as recent years have seen coaches like Mark Few, Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart stay put at smaller schools, eschewing opportunities at larger programs in the process.
Marshall also has a number of built-in advantages at Wichita State; advantages that most mid-major coaches can’t lay claim to. The Shockers have a strong and loyal fan base, one of the most underrated home courts in all of college basketball (Charles Koch Arena is a hidden gem – it should be on the bucket list for any college basketball fan), and a good basketball tradition, with a historical record that includes four Sweet Sixteens and even a Final Four back in 1965. These facts won’t have anyone confusing Wichita State with North Carolina or Kansas, but let’s also remember that Gonzaga had just one NCAA Tournament appearance before 1999. It’s always hard to predict where the next mid-major power will rise, but Wichita is as likely a spot as any.
This year’s team mimics many of the successful traits of Marshall teams of years past, yet another sign that there is a long-term plan in place in Wichita. They again run a legitimate nine to 10 players deep, and every player that steps foot on the court plays with effort and focus on the defensive end – no bucket comes easy against this squad. Their play on the other end this season has also reeked of familiarity; the Shockers again rank in the top 75 in the country in offensive efficiency (as they have for the past four seasons), and yet again the scoring is spread around – no player has averaged more than 14 points per game in the Gregg Marshall era, a trend that has continued this season.
After holding a lead with fewer than four minutes to play tonight in Knoxville, Wichita State ended up a play or two short of escaping Tennessee with a victory. Late game execution and an inability to keep UT guard Trae Golden out of the lane did the Shockers in, as the usually dependable Wichita State perimeter defense failed to measure up to Marshall’s exacting standards. Coach and players left Thompson-Boling Arena frustrated, knowing that they failed to seize a win that was sitting there for them. The minutiae that led to the loss will linger with Wichita State (and certainly Marshall), but the casual observer should think bigger picture. A Missouri Valley Conference team that lost several starters walked into an SEC arena tonight believing they were the better team, then went out and played like it for the better part of 36 minutes. It seemed unlikely eight months ago, but in an exercise that could very well become an annual ritual, Wichita State has already reloaded.