It Wasn’t Easy, But Gregg Marshall Has Worked His Magic at Wichita StatePosted by dnspewak on January 24th, 2013
Danny Spewak (@dspewak) is an RTC contributor. He filed this report following Wednesday night’s Wichita State victory at Missouri State.
On March 6, 2009, Gregg Marshall walked to the podium in the bowels of the Scottrade Center in St. Louis and delivered perhaps the most difficult postgame press conference of his career. Minutes earlier, Creighton’s Booker Woodfox banked in a jumper as time expired in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, even though replays showed a possible clock malfunction. Mass chaos all around. Reporters were interviewing the Missouri Valley commissioner in the hallway and demanding answers. The Shockers had heroically rallied from 22 points down, but this controversial shot sent them to the CBI.
Marshall’s press conference got emotional right away. He told us how his young child was begging him to appeal to the commissioner’s office, pleading for something to be done to rectify the situation. There was nothing anybody could do. The Shockers lost the game, and in two seasons, Marshall’s record at Wichita State stood only at 28-37. He left Winthrop for this? Marshall had been the king of the Big South. He had qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments with the Eagles and thrashed Notre Dame in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Now, he was trying to re-establish himself and his style of play all over again in the tough-as-nails Missouri Valley. Mark Turgeon hadn’t exactly left him a perfect situation when Marshall had taken over in 2007, but this proud program with a rabid fan base was going to need to see some improvement. And soon.
More than four years later, Marshall walked into the postgame press conference after Wednesday night’s 62-52 win at Missouri State with a strut. “I want to first congratulate the young man to my far right.” He’s pointing to Demetric Williams, the senior point guard who became the winningest player in Wichita State men’s basketball history on this particular evening. Williams was not on the Wichita State team that got Woodfoxed. He joined the program the following fall, and since then, he has epitomized the rise of Gregg Marshall and Wichita State. These days, his Shockers are ranked #20 in the nation and headed toward a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Much like last season’s 27-6 team, they have a clear identity and swagger. It’s not an identity anybody in the Valley wants to mess with any time soon. “Boy, they’re a good team,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. “They’re different, but they’re really good. They might be more physical this year.”
That is a frightening proposition. Last season’s squad looked like a collection of bodybuilders in their warm-up suits, but we’ll go ahead and call this new version “Shocker 2.0” this season. These guys are match-up nightmares at every position. Defensively, nobody can touch Wichita State in the Valley. We’ll start with Tekele Cotton. The sophomore guard used his big, strong, 6’2’’ frame to punish Missouri State leading scorer Anthony Downing, holding him to 4-of-14 from the field. He grabbed a few critical offensive rebounds in the final minutes, too, and he teams with Williams and Malcolm Armstead to form a dangerous group of defensive guards. “They give people fits,” Marshall said. So does Ehimen Orukpe, the 7’0’’ Nigerian native who did not play very well against the Bears but normally makes a major difference in the paint. And there’s that guy named Carl Hall – you know, the top returning player from a year ago – who’s so good his coach has named a new play for him. “It’s like the Green Bay Packer power sweep,” Marshall said. “Send it to Carl.” These guys rebound. They intimidate you. They rank near the top of Division I basketball in almost every defensive and rebounding category. That’s why they beat Creighton on Saturday, and it’s why they’re now in first place in the Valley after the Bluejays lost at Drake. When Wichita native Gavin Thurman went bananas and helped his Missouri State team build an eight-point lead in the second half, the Shockers quit messing around and D’ed some people up. Then, they scored 16 points in a row. Game over. Don’t play around with Wichita State. These guys are practically grown men. Wichita State may have tripped up at Evansville a few weeks ago, but that was during Hall’s injury. He returned this weekend. It’s a new team now.
Oh, and the Shockers do score, too. It’s amazing that you can gush about Wichita State’s defense for paragraphs and paragraphs and not even mention Cleanthony Early, the impact junior college transfer who pitches in about 15 points per game and burned Southern Illinois for 39 earlier this month. Marshall says he’s not quite an elite defender yet, but the Shockers have enough of those guys. Early makes life difficult for his own defenders, since he’s a 6’8’’ forward who shoots the ball well from mid-range and draws bigs away from the basket to guard him. He looked a little rusty at the start of Wednesday’s contest, but he quickly learned how to play ball in the Valley. “There’s gonna be some physical play, some holds and some grabs and some body slamming in the Valley, you’ve just gotta know that. I tell Cleanthony, ‘you’re the new guy. This is the way we play,’” Marshall said. “You’ve got to adjust.” He did, and he wound up with a team-high 17 points and 11 rebounds.
This collection of athletes and culture of toughness did not happen overnight. Even during the darker days of Marshall’s tenure, he was slowly building his foundation. In his first season, he had a freshman named J.T. Durley who started zero times and averaged seven points a game. Four years later, he was one of the better post players in the league. He also had a kid named Graham Hatch who hardly ever played. Four years later, he turned into a fierce and fearless glue guy. The list of players Marshall has developed could go on forever. Garrett Stutz was once a gangly freshman with “project” written all over him. Last year, he graduated as a first team all-MVC center.
This is what Marshall does. He develops. He teaches. He makes players tough. It took a few losing seasons in the Valley and a few NIT appearances, but he’s finally created what he had at Winthrop. “They can literally just walk down the floor and pound it inside,” Lusk said. This will continue past this season, by the way. Williams will graduate, but Marshall’s new crop of players will embody the same mentality. And you want to know the worst part? This guy’s constantly turning down offers to leave for power conference schools. At this pace, Wichita State might be body-slamming people to the floor and dominating rebound margins for decades.