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NCAA TOURNAMENT ELITE EIGHT Shocker players set their sights on winning, not on the sights in Los Angeles

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 29, 2013, at 7:36 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 9:02 a.m.

— They’re surrounded by sand, surf, palm trees and Hollywood tourist attractions.

But the 15 guys who make up the Wichita State University basketball team haven’t really seen any of that during their stay in California.

The trip – especially this trip, during which they have played their way into the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight – is pretty businesslike, they say.

It’s a blur of practice, play, hotel rooms, eating, studying and lots and lots of time spent staring at footage of La Salle – and now Ohio State – playing basketball.

“It’s kind of all business,” freshman guard Fred VanVleet said. “After we win, then we get to celebrate a little.”

So far, the guys said during locker room interviews on Friday afternoon, their trip to California has been pretty un-Hollywood-like – if you don’t count the parts where they’re all over television and being hounded by media for interviews and fans for autographs.

Except for games and practices, they’ve been out of their hotel, the luxurious Omni in downtown Los Angeles, only twice: once to have dinner at The Palms steakhouse and once to have dinner at Lawry’s.

They haven’t even seen the beach yet, though some hinted they might get the chance later Friday night.

“I’ve never been to California before, and now we’re in Los Angeles,” said sophomore guard Evan Wessel of Wichita. “It’d be nice to see the city, but there’s a bigger thing we’re here for.”

The superstructured scheduling is part of Coach Gregg Marshall’s approach, said Chris Jans, the Shockers’ associate head coach. The method has worked for years, he said, so why change it?

It involves making days on the road as routine as possible, he said. The players aren’t distracted by much that would take their minds off what they’re there to do, and they know what to expect when they wake up on practice days and what to expect when they wake up on game days.

Sightseeing is not really on the agenda, Jans said, in part because the coaches don’t want the players on their feet much when they’re not on the court.

“There’s a lot of film watching,” he said. “And there’s a lot of eating. It sometimes seems like all we do is eat and watch film.”

But that doesn’t mean that the Shockers never have fun.

They watch “SportsCenter” in each other’s hotel rooms. They play video games – mostly “Call of Duty.” They bond over music, their shared religious beliefs and on-the-road study halls in hotel conference rooms with “Miss Gretchen,” their traveling academic adviser.

Most important, the guys said, is that during the hours and minutes stuffed in between basketball, they spend a lot of time laughing.

The main supplier of the goofiness, they all said, is senior forward Carl Hall, the Shocker who stole headlines in Salt Lake City for suddenly shearing his signature dreadlocks.

Hall is known for hilarity and for never giving his friend and roommate on the road – freshman Derail Green – a break. He’s the one who will stuff a banana into a sleeping teammate’s mouth on the bus.

“Carl is the funniest dude I’ve ever met in my life,” said Chadrack Lufile, who can’t keep from laughing just talking about Hall.

Hall also can take what he dishes out, Lufile said. He gets it right back from his teammates, who have been giving him unending grief about the sudden appearance of his ears now that his hair is short.

Despite their success, especially recently, the players are down-to-earth guys who know they’re not in Los Angeles to see the Hollywood sign or hunt for celebrity mansions, said Blake Peniston, one of the student team managers. He spends as much time with the players as they do with each other.

“Everyone thinks they’re big time or too good for people,” he said. “But they’re just normal guys. They’re normal kids.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com.

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