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Wichita State basketball recoups from its frenzied Final Four push

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 25, 2013, at 2:45 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, May 25, 2013, at 7:03 p.m.

“Vacation angry” doesn’t make as much sense as “Play angry.”

But break time is important for Wichita State men’s basketball coaches, and many people in the athletic department, in the aftermath of the Final Four.

“My wife asked me: ‘When are we going to slow down?’ ” coach Gregg Marshall said.

Probably never, at least not until the afterglow of Atlanta fades. Wichita State’s month in the spotlight changed things in the athletic department, and coaches and administrators are grappling with the new normal.

Marshall took vacation this month. He will welcome in record numbers to his basketball camps next month. In July, coaches hit the road for recruiting, a grind that never stops even when they are bound to their offices.

The players took two weeks off after the season. They worked with coaches in small groups or individually before taking off for exams. The players, new ones included, return in June for summer school and practice.

In between, everybody needs some time to recharge and attend to normal duties, while still soaking up the rewards of WSU’s first Final Four since 1965.

“It’s a great thing to be in demand, but we could be doing a couple of appearances, signings, speaking engagements every day,” Marshall said. “Seven days a week.”

WSU athletic director Eric Sexton hates to say no. He grew up a Shocker fan, raised on Prince McJunkins, Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel. He knows how much fans love their Shockers. He knows that love builds and sustains his athletic department. The number of “thanks” he hears from people for the Final Four is humbling.

“Our inclination is to say yes,” he said. “What got us here was the Shocker nation and their hard work.”

Saying “Not this year,” or “Let’s send a signed basketball instead of a coach,” are choices that need to be made.

“We all have to kind of pull our horns back and budget our time, our talents and our efforts,” Sexton said. “Without shutting people out, because that’s really important to us. This is a very new normal.”

Life after the Final Four is proceeding quickly in some ways and cautiously in others.

By next season, expect Marshall to be working with a new contract. Updates to Koch Arena, now 10 years old, will start. The early returns on scheduling are positive, while it remains a challenge to find the mix of opponents and dates.

• • • 

The response from the Final Four continues to impress Marshall and Sexton.

“It’s all over,” Marshall said. “You see people in their yards cutting their grass, planting flowers. They’re wearing Shockers, Shockers everywhere.”

That gratitude goes both ways.

“I’ve tried to focus on saying thank you,” Sexton said. “But also talking about the things that we have accomplished. Building bottles to catch lightning requires us to make investments. If we’re going to continue to compete at the very highest level, it takes physical support as well as financial support.”

With the Final Four fresh in minds, some people can’t wait to support the Shockers. Marshall’s golf tournament and auction this month netted more than $335,000, up from $187,000 in 2012. Attendance at dinner and auction totaled 950 people, also a high.

A new contract for Marshall, complete with raise and extension, is moving along, Sexton said.

“We are making great progress and working toward some changes for his contract,” Sexton said. “Gregg’s commitment to us, and our commitment to him, has continued to be evident.”

It gave Sexton great comfort to hear Marshall take numerous opportunities to spotlight the university and city during the Final Four. He often turned questions about his future into a PR blitz, dropping Pizza Hut’s origins, the aviation industry, Koch Industries, the engineering school, and the volleyball team into his answers.

“We both believe in that,” Sexton said. “I’ve been here my whole life. I don’t feel like I’m bound here. We all believe this is a great place. We want other folks to see how great a place Wichita State is.”

WSU needs three games to complete its schedule and is looking to start one series at home and one on the road. Finding a game at a neutral site is another goal for a schedule that loses Creighton, the BracketBusters series and the MVC-Mountain West Conference series.

The schedule already includes a game against Tennessee at Intrust Bank Arena, home games against Davidson, Oral Roberts, Western Kentucky, and a Tulsa road game. WSU will play in a tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City which includes Texas, Brigham Young and DePaul.

“When you have eight or nine games scheduled, the dates become the biggest sticking point,” senior associate athletic director Darron Boatright said. “You hope you don’t have to get in a situation … where you’re moving Oral Roberts or moving North Carolina-Central. We have to be willing to do some non-tradition things, possibly, to get the series we want and expect.”

The neutral-site game could come in an established event, or two schools could work together to find a site. Administrators with the Valley talked with conferences such as the Big 12 and the Mountain West about setting up doubleheaders at sites such as the Sprint Center or St. Louis’ Scottrade Center.

The Final Four is helping, as expected, although it is not a cure for scheduling issues. Boatright said WSU is talking with organizers of the Maui Invitational, which the Shockers visited in 2010, and the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

“It’s created new avenues for us, both for this year and moving forward,” Boatright said. “We’re back on the radar of the major multi-team events. We’re not begging to get into that conversation. It’s a two-way conversation.”

WSU will not play Creighton this season. Its schedule is full, Boatright said.

• • • 

While making money off the Final Four is important, WSU will not “re-seat” Koch Arena, although Sexton would not rule it out in the future. Sexton said some schools who reassigned seats for season-ticket holders based on money, location and priority points lost fans. He wants to watch other schools this summer and see how their plans work.

“We want to be sure how we do this,” he said. “Conventional wisdom says this is the time to strike when the iron is hot. We want to be sure we’ve done our homework over the summer to see what is potentially the best way to capitalize. Re-seating is just one.”

WSU did change its Shocker Athletic Scholarship Organization giving levels for tickets, eliminating one group. A loss of parking spots, because of construction of a dormitory near Cessna Stadium, forced the changes.

Sexton said the new dorm is a popular project with his coaches, who see it as an important recruiting tool. The construction will make parking at games less convenient and Sexton said using shuttles from parking lots to the arena will be considered.

“With progress, there may be some irritants,” Sexton said. “We will do everything in our power to mitigate some of those irritants.”

A new scoreboard, similar to the one at Intrust Bank Arena, and sound system costing $1.7 million should be ready for volleyball season. The men’s basketball locker room will be renovated, at a cost of around $250,000. More improvements are coming to the arena as Sexton wants to stay ahead of the campus’ master plan.

The work for the 2013-14 season hits a new gear with summer practices. Marshall is not thinking about taking a step back, despite losing four seniors. He expects the Shockers to return to the NCAA Tournament. Once there, as March and April proved, good things can happen.

“You keep pounding, keep grinding, keep defending,” Marshall said. “One of those years you get the breaks, you get the seedings, you get the draw and you knock down those shots.”

Check Paul Suellentrop’s Shocker blog at blogs.kansas.com/shockwaves. Reach him at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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