SALT LAKE CITY — Drama is a prerequisite for back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances at Wichita State, no matter the era.
• In 1965, the Shockers survived the in-season losses of All-American Dave Stallworth (completed his eligibility at semester) and center Nate Bowman (academically ineligible) to advance to the Final Four.
• The 1988 Shockers lost three straight games in overtime in December and needed to finish the regular season with six straight wins to earn an at-large berth.
• Starters from the 2013 team lost 57 games to injury.
The previous eras also proved the back-to-back NCAAs is no precursor to long-term success. NIT trips followed in 1966 and 1989 before the Shockers slipped from prominence. After 1965, WSU didn’t return to the NCAA Tournament until 1976. The drought after 1988 lasted until 2006.
Things feel differently for the Shockers this time, in large part because coach Gregg Marshall appears in for the long haul. If they can earn a No. 9 seed and an at-large bid after losing four starters, the prognosis for consistent success seems good.
“This was supposed to be a rebuilding year,” Marshall said. “This is something we can do, and we’ve proven that and we’ve proven it in consecutive years. The possibilities of keeping it going now are stronger, after rebuilding.”
WSU started the season picked fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. In early November, present Marshall a spot in the NIT and he grabs it. A win at VCU on Nov. 11 started to change the perception about the Shockers and an 11-1 start put them in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Through injuries to four starters — one a broken pinky that cost guard Evan Wessel his season — the Shockers moved in and out of the national rankings and stayed in the MVC race.
“We just wanted to survive this year,” Marshall said. “Maybe win 20 and maybe get some type of postseason play. Our guys have just found a way to win. They’re one of my favorite groups I’ve ever coached because of their toughness.”
In Marshall’s mind, the Shockers should be making their third NCAA trip. The 2011 team gave an NCAA bid a strong run before winning the NIT. A November loss to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut and a resume-crushing home loss to Southern Illinois in February still linger in Marshall’s mind.
“We were a really, really good club that went to the NIT and proved that,” he said.
The Shockers earned their NCAA bids the hardest way possible for a team outside the top six conferences. They proved their worth over a four-month season, not with one good weekend in a conference tournament. Aggressive non-conference scheduling paid off, as did the MVC’s BracketBusters series and challenge series with the Mountain West Conference.
Since the MVC went to its current 10-team alignment in 1996-97, WSU joins Southern Illinois (2002-05) and Northern Iowa (2005, 2006) with consecutive at-large bids.
“That says something about their body of work,” said Rich Zvosec, a former coach at UMKC who broadcasts MVC and Big 12 games on Fox Sports and ESPN networks. “For them to go back to back and not having won a conference tournament either year, that’s harder than winning three games in three days.”