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Bob Lutz: Wichita loves its basketball

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 31, 2011, at 12:09 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, June 27, 2013, at 11:12 a.m.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Where does WSU's NIT championship rank in program accomplishments?


NEW YORK — It didn't take a trip to the Big Apple or a berth in the NIT championship game against Alabama to remind us that Wichita State is a big-time basketball school or that Wichitans love their Shockers.

It's been this way for decades. Through thick and thin — and there has been plenty of both — Shocker basketball fans have remained true.

Whatever happens tonight against the Crimson Tide will not change that.

Wichita is gaga over the NIT. I mean, what city or fan base gets gaga over the NIT? New Yorkers are staying away from this tournament in droves. There were between 4,000 and 5,000 fans at Tuesday night's semifinal games at Madison Square Garden and no more than a handful of them were natives.

Watering holes in Wichita were full of Shocker fans for the semis and tonight's game has the city in a frenzy.

It's incredible. And this kind of stuff doesn't happen in many other cities.

"What I take from my years in Wichita is that the fans are so special, unique even,'' said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, a Shocker assistant for six years under Mark Turgeon. "You're in a fishbowl there. It's a big-time environment and people outside of Wichita simply don't get that.''

And let's face it, there are a lot of people outside of Wichita.

When they see the Shockers on television, playing a home game at Koch Arena, they have to be taken aback and the number of people who show up and the amount of noise they make.

There is nothing that unites Wichita the way Shocker basketball does. It goes back all the way to the Shockers' days of playing at The Forum in downtown Wichita and built to its peak — which it has been able to maintain — when Cleo Littleton, Dave Stallworth and Ralph Miller helped define Shocker basketball during the 1950s and 1960s.

For many of those seasons, Wichita State was highly regarded nationally. The Shockers barely missed a Final Four berth in 1964, then made it in 1965. And 46 years later the love affair continues to steam.

"We're selling out our arena for regular-season games, NIT games,'' Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "We're taking caravans to St. Louis in unprecedented numbers and now we've got a great contingent of fans here in New York City. It's not like that everywhere.''

It's certainly not.

And it sometimes frustrates WSU fans who perceive love isn't always a two-way street. They are flummoxed when a Shocker basketball coach casts his eyes elsewhere.

So as excitement about this season and tonight's game reaches an apex, so does concern that Marshall may not be long for Wichita State. Reports are swirling, including an unsourced one in the Wednesday Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer that said Marshall and VCU's Shaka Smart are high on the list of potential candidates to replace Sidney Lowe as North Carolina State's coach.

Marshall is also in the rumor mill for openings at Missouri and Oklahoma.

Rest assured, Marshall loves coaching at Wichita State. He has learned and respects the history of the program. He is proud to be part of Shocker basketball heritage and consistently displays that pride when he's out in the community.

But I would be surprised if Marshall doesn't have what most coaches possess — the desire to test himself at the highest level.

Some never get the chance. But those who do usually jump at it.

Turgeon and his wife, Ann, loved their seven years in Wichita. Two of their children were born here. Having been a former player at Kansas and having grown up in Topeka, I'm not sure Turgeon expected the kind of support he received at WSU.

He always went out of his way to mention it. But that didn't stop him from taking the Texas A&M job after what turned out to be a disappointing 2006-07 season. The previous season, WSU advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and Turgeon, after many restless nights for Shocker fans, signed a contract extension.

But he wasn't long for the Shockers. The lure of self-discovery — and a fatter paycheck — pushed him to College Station, and after four seasons with the Aggies, all of which have included an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Turgeon's name is again out there as a potential candidate at North Carolina State.

It's how this works. Because Marshall might be being wooed by other schools — and might be listening — is not an indictment of the Wichita State job or Shocker fans. It's a fantastic job and the fan base is emotionally locked in. Shocker basketball is in the DNA of a lot of Wichitans and it will stay that way no matter who is coaching.

Marshall took this job, after nine seasons at Winthrop, because he was convinced it was the right move for him to make. He got a big pay raise but more importantly he came to a place where basketball mattered.

Marshall digs it at WSU. That doesn't mean he'll be here forever, or be here even tomorrow.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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