Wichita State’s Success Isn’t Shocking to Its FansPosted by BHayes on April 5th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC contributor. He can be found on Twitter @hoopstraveler.
For four of the past five years, I have taken a month out of my winter to literally chase college basketball. I have followed it to places large (Lexington, Kentucky, and Lawrence, Kansas), and small (Charleston, Illinois, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri), and along the way I have developed a few favorites. I can tell you that the only thing that surpasses the fervor of college basketball fans in Murray, Kentucky, is their hospitality. I have seen 6th Street in Austin provide as much (and sometimes more) life as the Erwin Center, and I now fully understand why Big Ten teams so rarely leave the Kohl Center victorious. But among all the memorable games and cherished college basketball experiences, one stop has always stood out – Wichita, Kansas.
It was my first trip back in 2009, and I had no idea what I was getting into – in more ways than one. Travel fatigue was quickly accumulating (despite it only being week one), and the dark drive from Omaha (where I had watched Drake beat Creighton) on Saturday night was a long one. Wichita was to be but a Sunday stop-over before Bedlam in Stillwater the next day; the fact that the Shockers had a game that day was merely a superfluous reality for this naive traveler. Calling my expectations low would be false. My mind was already on Stillwater, and I had no expectations for Wichita.
It was year two of the Gregg Marshall regime, and his rebuilding Shockers were just 8-11 overall and 2-6 in the MVC when I awoke that Sunday. Evansville was in town for a 3:00 PM tip and while the Purple Aces were off to a surprising 12-6 start, nobody was mistaking them for a Valley title contender either. To be blunt, this one had all the makings of a meaningless Sunday afternoon game. But if I was thinking along those lines upon entering Charles Koch Arena, I most certainly was not after my arrival. A 6-10 combined conference record be damned, the Roundhouse was filled to the brim. By brim, I mean recorded attendance was six people short of capacity type of brim, and it felt every bit of it — and more. This is no bandbox, glorified high school gymnasium, either – Charles Koch’s listed capacity of 10,500 makes it the 81st largest facility in Division I hoops. As I moved to my seat, the tip had not even seen the center circle, but nearly all the Shockers’ faithful were standing and clapping their way through the conclusion of pregame warm-ups. I was left to wonder what exactly I had stumbled upon here in the middle of Kansas.
The fan’s contagious, supportive energy started early and never stopped. Marshall’s young team made plenty of mistakes, turning the ball over 17 times, missing 11 free throws, and making just 16 of their 43 field goal attempts, but the fans’ enthusiasm was relentless. For better or for worse, this was their team. And despite the messy box score (don’t worry, Marshall’s team still churns out a few of these per annum), their team wound up winners on that Sunday, with Toure’ Murry hitting a three in the closing seconds to lift the Shockers to a one-point win. The freshman’s late heroics were celebrated with all the noise you’d expect, but when Evansville’s final effort came up short and the buzzer sounded, no frantic court rush ensued. Just as they had in the moments prior to the game’s first buzzer, Shockers’ fans stood, cheered, and clapped in rhythm — a deserving reward for a young team beginning to find its way. Marshall gave a firm and knowing fist pump to the crowd as he walked off the floor, an act of appreciation he has since directed their way many subsequent times.
It’s no secret now that Shockers love is alive and well in Kansas’ largest city. Equally conspicuous has been all the winning Wichita State has been doing – 25 or more wins in every season since 2009, a #5 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and now a surprising Final Four run. Marshall has built a winner in a place that has seen its share of success before – the Shockers were participants in the 1965 Final Four, made an Elite Eight in 1981, and a Sweet Sixteen as recently as 2006 – but never has the program been humming along quite like this. As in each of the past two offseasons, power conference schools will again come calling for the Wichita State head man, but don’t be surprised if Marshall makes the same decision he has in the past. He’s proven you can win and win big in Wichita, and with an unrelentingly passionate fan base in tow at all times. When it comes down to it, how many other jobs can offer that?
On Saturday night, Wichita’s team will take the floor on the grandest of college basketball stages. In many ways, this will be its national introduction. Fans around the country will take note of a fine season and an even finer Tournament run, and undoubtedly remark upon the lack of precedence. A “mid-major” loses five starters and makes the Final Four? How unusual! And it is. But for those who have been watching the ascent of the program over the past six seasons, this cannot be a massive surprise. These are, and always have been, Marshall’s Shockers. The talent level is a little higher now than it was back in 2009, but the toughness – both physical and mental – remains the defining characteristic of the team and program.
They have already made the rounds, but an upset of Louisville would surely bring rise to still more “Shocker the World” puns on news outlets across the country. I’m sure Shocker fans will kindly excuse the banality for the chance to play for a national title, but as the bandwagon swells, allow me to make one point clear. Most of us may just now be buying in to what Marshall is doing in Southern Kansas, but the people of Wichita? Without a doubt, they have always believed.