ATLANTA — Wichita State spent the past month fighting the labels of mid-major and Cinderella.
The new label is role model, the one-shining-moment example for all schools outside the power conferences dreaming of the biggest stage. When the Shocker coaches walk on the raised floor at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, all their competitors will be thinking, “How did they do it and how we can steal their ideas?”
“We’re trying to find out the best way to get where those guys are going,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “I hope they win the whole thing.”
Wichita State joins the elite of the non-elite, if football-fueled budgets and TV exposure are the defining characteristics of college basketball’s caste system.
Gonzaga and Xavier state their case with consistent excellence, while lacking a breakthrough to the Final Four. George Mason showed it could be done in 2006. Butler played in two national title games. Virginia Commonwealth followed George Mason — same conference, same BracketBusters road through Koch Arena — in 2011.
A month that started with fans wondering if WSU could reach Gonzaga’s level ended with the Shockers leaving that program in the Sweet 16 in Salt Lake City.
Prepare, Wichita State, for the onslaught of questions and imitators.
Prepare, imitators, for an onslaught of answers. Everybody has a different reason why WSU is playing on Saturday.
Coaches wanting to follow WSU’s path should consider the benchmarks.
Coach Gregg Marshall lists recruiting as the most important factor. He and his assistant coaches assembled this team with players from Scott City, Georgia, Canada, Nigeria and other places not nearly as exotic. At WSU, imaginative and resourceful recruiting is a must, as is hiring coaches with connections to all kind of feeder schools.
Malcolm Armstead, who played in junior college for WSU assistant Greg Heiar, paid his own way for one year to play for the Shockers. Ron Baker did the same. They recruited Carl Hall when many schools backed off because he needed to win an NCAA appeal for a fourth season of eligibility. They went south for Hall, Armstead and Tekele Cotton and to Canada for Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile.
“Recruit athletic guys that are tough and will allow you to coach them,” Marshall said. “I like self-starters. If you work, you can improve.”
WSU isn’t rolling in McDonald’s All-Americans. Its coaches find recruits who can compete with schools that do recruit the four-star athletes.
“It’s important to pick your battles,” associate head coach Chris Jans said. “We’re not concerned about levels and who’s recruiting someone. We can’t be spending all of our time on this certain group of guys that everyone in the country is recruiting. We target the kids we think will fit.”
Some of what allows Marshall to recruit and build this program can’t easily be duplicated. At every stop in the tournament, he praised WSU’s investment in his program. If schools chose their level, WSU chose to compete at the highest one. Those are decisions that started when the University of Wichita hired Ralph Miller in 1951.
To achieve consistent success, programs need to be funded at or near their peers. WSU’s basketball budget of around $4.6 million ranks in the top 70 nationally and tops in the Missouri Valley.
“Our administration gives us wonderful support,” Marshall said. “We fly on private planes every time we leave the ground. We have 10,500 fans at every game. It’s a great place to coach.”
In 2000, athletic director Jim Schaus needed to raise money to bump his coach’s salary from $125,000 to $175,000 and land Mark Turgeon. After a decade of losing, he found resistance. Thirteen years later, that’s bonus money for Marshall, who makes a base of $1.2 million with hundreds of thousands coming in bonuses.
“There are not any shortcuts,” said Schaus, now athletic director at Ohio. “It comes down to investment.”
Schaus, hired in 1999, lists the leadership of former president Don Beggs, the renovation of Levitt Arena into Koch Arena and the hiring of Turgeon and then Marshall as the key steps toward improving the program. Schaus said changing season-ticket donor levels and seating in Koch Arena, after the renovation finished in 2003, paid for the upgrades.
“It had to be done,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. The whole process not only ended up being profitable, it allowed us to configure the arena in the right way. It improved the general revenue base. It raised resources for all sports.”
Those investments continue today. Marshall, when asked about his team’s mid-major status, expounds on his budget, his players, his fans and his salary. He says athletic director Eric Sexton doesn’t tell him no, whether it’s for a recruiting trip or renovating the locker room.
“We’re continuing to invest in excellence,” Sexton said earlier this month as the Shockers prepared for the tournament. “If you do that, all other things take care of themselves.”
Wichita State hired the right coaches at the right time. Turgeon grew into the right coach to restore WSU’s pride and guide the program to the top of the MVC and into the NCAA Tournament. When he departed for Texas A&M in 2007, Schaus found Marshall, the perfect coach to take that foundation and make the Shockers an even bigger winner.
“You bring in good coaches and you pay them well,” Indiana State’s Lansing said. “It’s been a focus to have a successful basketball program. They’re not a mid-major.”
The passion and investment that drives the program showed up in 2009, Marshall’s second season. The Shockers, while on a six-game losing streak, came home to a sold-out crowd for a game against Creighton. WSU won and turned that season around. Any doubts about the loyalty of the fans or the direction of the program disappeared in the wake of that victory.
“At that point you start thinking to yourself, ‘Can we do this?’ ” Jans said. “And players start thinking, ‘Am I in the right place?’ Coming out to a sold-out crowd and to beat your rival — to me that gave everyone a boost of confidence.”