April 10, 2013 by bdetienne
“The Marshall Plan proves best in the west! Wichita State is going to the Final Four!”- DialGlobal Radio call on WSU’s 70-66 victory over Ohio State, 3/30/13
Wichita State is going to the Final Four. I never thought I would hear those words uttered during my lifetime- unless I was playing a college hoops video game on my Xbox. Yet, here it was in front of me on television. The Shockers had advanced to the final weekend of college basketball and had a chance to win the national championship. On one hand, I am not terribly surprised. There has been an uptick in mid-majors in the final weekend of action as WSU joins George Mason, Butler (twice), and VCU as schools that defied the odds to make the Final Four since 2006. The surprising aspect of WSU’s ascension to the national semifinal game was realizing just how far the program has come to get there.
I was born and raised a Shocker fan. [Sidenote: even when I went to another unnamed Kansas school with a mythical mascot who is pretty freakin’ good at basketball, I still rooted for WSU as well.] My father was an alumnus of the school and had gotten into basketball while he was a student. There is no photographic proof that I am aware of but it is likely that I was clothed in yellow and black from an early age. My first recollection of rooting the team on came in the early 1990’s. Eddie Fogler, after a successful four-year stretch at the helm, bolted for South Carolina and his former assistant Mike Cohen took over.
To give you an idea of how bad the next seven seasons were under Cohen and his replacement Scott Thompson were, I remember both coaches more for specific events than for the teams they put on the floor. In Cohen’s case, it was a game against the #12 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in 1990. At the end of the first half the Shockers made a basket to go up at halftime and Cohen jumped up in excitement. However, he came down on his leg wrong and tore a ligament in his knee. He came out to coach the second half wearing sweats and maneuvering on crutches.
Thompson I remember from a men’s breakfast at my church in 1992 or 1993. He was a good speaker and joked that he should recruit me after I informed him that my highest scoring output from a basketball game was 20 points. [Sidenote: I was in middle school at the time and was the chubby kid with Rec-Specs who might have scored 20 points once or twice in my life. Think Chubby from Teen Wolf and you get the idea. Not the ideal recruit, yet not sure if I was much worse than some of the talent he brought in.] Despite the losing records, my dad and I went to as many games as we could and crowded around the radio for the games home and away we could not, hoping each night the team would bring home a W.
Randy Smithson assumed control of the program in 1996, my first year in high school. A lot of hope and excitement came with his hire (myself included) as Smithson was the son of one of WSU’s most successful coaches, Gene Smithson. Although Randy Smithson fared better than his two predecessors (he had two seasons in a row of teams with [barely] winning records!), he could not quite get the program to the next level. It was frustrating- it seemed like the Shockers had the fan base and the facilities to succeed but the results on the court were underwhelming. Smithson was let go following the 1999-2000 season and AD Jim Schaus brought in a young coach named Mark Turgeon.
Although Gregg Marshall will get the lion’s share of the credit for the current state of the Wichita State men’s basketball program (most of it deserved), Mark Turgeon is the one who brought the program back to respectability. After a couple of years spent recruiting his type of players into the program, Turgeon guided the team to an 18-12 record and a berth in the NIT, the first postseason appearance for the school in fourteen years. I was stoked. I was a junior at that unnamed other Kansas school, but I finally saw WSU in the postseason. The experience lasted a whopping one game, but it was a signal that the program might be returning to some of the glory days I had heard so much about but had never experienced.
2002-03 was not a fluke as the next two seasons saw the Shockers earn consecutive 20+ wins and two more NIT bids (although they nearly cracked the bubble and made the NCAA tournament both years). I remember some great games as the Roundhouse started resembling the crazy atmosphere that my dad had described to me from the early 1980’s. Then came the magical year of 2006 when the team won the Missouri Valley Conference, gained admission to the NCAA tournament, and stunned higher seeded Tennessee on their way to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Final Four participant George Mason. It was an incredible feeling to see a WSU team advance so far. I enjoyed even more through the eyes of my sister who was in school at WSU at the time and knew some of the players on the team. Here is the thing, though: with Wichita State at that mid-major level, I was not confident that they could ever make it past the Sweet 16. That would be the ceiling they could feasibly reach but no further. Anyway, after losing most of the starters from the squad, the following season finished with a disappointing 17-14 record and no postseason appearance. Turgeon would be offered the Texas A&M job at the conclusion of the season, a position he accepted.
Mark Turgeon’s shoes would be tough to fill, but Jim Schaus found his man in Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall. Marshall had led the Eagles to seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons on the bench and Schaus felt that he could bring similar success to Wichita State. I recall phoning my dad and talking to him about how great a hire Marshall was. I had seen a couple of the Winthrop tourney games and though they did not get far in the bracket, they threw a scare in a couple of teams I thought were far superior. The first season under Marshall was not memorable but in the second, the team earned a .500 record and a spot in the College Basketball Invitational tournament. Then the next four seasons came and it started becoming apparent that Marshall was a darn good coach building a consistent, darn good program.
2009-10: 25 wins. 2nd place finish in the Valley. Postseason berth. 2010-11: 29 wins. 2nd place finish in the Valley. Snubbed from the NCAA tournament, the Shockers went on a tear through the NIT tournament and defeated Alabama to win the NIT championship. [Sidenote: I watched the game from the gym and got several looks when I was doing fist bumps and talking to the screen…from my treadmill.] It may not be as heralded as the NCAA crown, but to see this kind of play and result from a Wichita State team was spectacular. Marshall & Co. were not done yet, though. 2011-12. Lose five significant contributors, no worries. 27 wins, 1st place finish in the Valley. Advance to the NCAA tournament and lose a heartbreaking game to Virginia Commonwealth in the second round.
2012-13. Lose five more contributors from the team, then see three significant players on this year’s team go down with long-term injuries. In years past, I would have fretted. And it did not look good at parts of the season (A three game slide in the middle of the season to vastly inferior teams and a loss on Senior Day? Really?). But this team weathered the storm somehow. They still finished the year in 2nd place, only a game behind the full-strength Creighton Bluejays. [Sidenote: I am not the only Shocker fan who wonders how that might be different if WSU was full strength the whole time. They were closer to, but still not at 100%, for their historic tourney run.] After a thrilling game at the MVC conference tournament in St. Louis, in which WSU’s last second shot to tie the game fell just short, WSU entered the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year as the 9 seed in the West Region.
It looked like a tough road for the Shocks. The likes of Pitt, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Ohio State, and Arizona potentially loomed ahead and several pundits did not have WSU making it out of the first weekend of the tournament. [Sidenote: full disclosure, I did not have them making it past Gonzaga in the third round. Oops.] But as they say, that is why you play the games. As has been covered in depth on ESPN, online, and in print, the team got a pep talk from former stars Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel in which they were challenged to “play angry.” The team that emerged was on a mission. They took care of Pitt and then surprising everyone, took down #1 Gonzaga. Wichita State was back in the Sweet 16.
Upstart LaSalle was next, who had come from the First Four play-in games to win three in a row. I saw a tweet from a national college hoops writer who said, “one of these teams is 40 minutes from a Final Four.” Was I wrong with my assessment from seven years ago? Could the Shockers’ ceiling be higher than I thought? LaSalle was tough, but the Shockers were tougher and won the match. After dispatching Arizona, Ohio State loomed large. The Buckeyes had been to the final weekend the year before and were the favorites to return. The only people who disagreed, it seems, were Wichita State fans. I was on the edge of my seat the entire second half, shouting excitedly at every WSU basket and groaning when the Buckeyes would put the ball in the hoop. The Shocks took it to OSU, going up by double digits and then holding off a furious rally by the Buckeyes to win the game 70-66. Did that just happen? Are my eyes deceiving me? Did the Wichita State Shockers just advance to the Final Four? Yes they did. I gladly accepted the fact that this program’s ceiling does not stop until the last weekend of the tournament.
I have walked into Charles Koch Arena for several games over the past twenty years and every time I walk in, I gaze at that banner that reads 1965 Final Four. What an indelible memory that year must have left on Shocker fans. In about six months time, there will be another banner hung in the rafters that says 2013 Final Four. No, the Shockers did not bring home the national championship trophy (although they played one heck of a game against eventual champ Louisville, pushing the Cardinals to the brink before losing a close game 72-68), but they brought national attention to their school and pride to their fans, yours truly included. It was an unforgettable year, one that I never thought I would see and will most definitely never forget.