ST. LOUIS — Wichita State put up billboards claiming St. Louis as Shocker Nation. They went up, ringing the downtown area around Scottrade Center, for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, and stayed up for this weekend.
It’s one thing to call your shot against Evansville. It’s another when Kentucky and Kansas State are in your bracket and Kansas is in the gym.
Something happened over the past seven years, where WSU went from proclaiming “It’s a great day to be a Shocker” to this SEC-like display of bravado written large on black canvas along the interstates.
How did this happen? How is Wichita State, not long ago thrilled with an NIT spot, elbowing its way into the elite by backing up a Final Four with a No. 1 seed? What did coach Gregg Marshall see that few others did?
This isn’t the first time Marshall helped upset the basketball world order by pushing a team past assumed boundaries.
Turning Wichita State into a national championship contender isn’t easy. Neither was it easy to help College of Charleston coach John Kresse earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in 1994 — in its third season as an NCAA Division I member after moving from the NAIA.
“We had a nice season — 24-3 and we weren’t eligible for the (conference tournament) as part of that NCAA penance,” Kresse said. “Gregg said, ‘Hey, we’re going to get an at-large bid.’ I said, ‘There’s no way they’re going to give one to the College of Charleston.’ ”
That is how Marshall operates. Give him the resources and he will get the players and coach them.
“He believes he's going to win the national championship,” Kresse said. “His vision is that, ‘We were so close last year.’ Now he's feeling good about this year.”
In 2007, many people would have said there’s no way WSU will play in the Final Four. The Shockers hadn’t been close since the Elite Eight in 1981 and no Missouri Valley Conference team passed the Sweet 16 since. College basketball changed and MVC schools were told to be happy with an upset or two and then go home. MVC schools made eight trips to the Sweet 16 since 1981 and none advanced.
“It almost seemed, not that they lost focus, but maybe they didn’t seize the moment like Wichita State has seized it,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. “The thing I like about Gregg is that he’s never satisfied.”
Marshall came to WSU in April 2007, when it was one season removed from a Sweet 16 run that made Wichita deliriously happy. It was WSU’s first NCAA appearance since 1988 and to dream of much more seemed greedy.
“I didn’t really set a limit on what we could achieve,” Marshall said. “I knew that the program had great tradition. I knew they were offering me a lot of money to come coach. They obviously had the finances to support it, with all the 10,000-plus that are in attendance every night.”
Associate head coach Chris Jans, part of Marshall’s first staff , remembers conversations that focused on achieving what Gonzaga had done. Marshall and Jans expected to dominate the MVC, go to the NCAA Tournament and win games. Nothing else was on the table.
“There was no reason we couldn’t be Gonzaga,” Jans said. “We just needed to get the players. We would talk about it on many occasions — why not us?”
“It’s a perfect storm of a coach with ambition and drive and ability to sell, and a program where that combination woke up the echoes,” Elgin said. “They’ve gone out and they’ve recruited high-major talent and kept them focused.”
They got the players, going from Nigeria to Canada to Scott City. They recruited junior colleges and prep schools and convinced transfers such as Malcolm Armstead and Kadeem Coleby to pay their own way for a season. Sophomore Ron Baker, who redshirted one season as a walk-on, joined a program with one NCAA Tournament appearance in his lifetime.
In his first season, WSU made the NCAA Tournament and lost. Last season, he played a major role in knocking off No. 1 Gonzaga and beating Ohio State to reach the Final Four.
“The one thing the coaches emphasized the most (while recruiting him) was when you get here, the program’s going to be on the rise,” Baker said.
So what changed? WSU athletic director Eric Sexton says nothing. Under his tenure, which started in 2008, this was always the goal.
“You don’t broadcast it to the high heavens, but this is what athletic departments are built for,” he said. “This is what we’ve been. You are striving for excellence. Excellence is, winning that national championship.”
The Shockers are that good and they want you to know it, as the billboards demonstrate. WSU’s contract with CBS Collegiate Sports Properties provides for $100,000 worth of billboards each year. They put up seven for the MVC Tournament and added one for the NCAAs. They were ready to place them in other NCAA cities, such as San Antonio.
Sexton and associate athletic director John Brewer view the billboards,which feature a player and the words Shocker Nation, as a love letter to the fans who travel to support the Shockers. They are more than that, of course. They are a symbol of an athletic department that follows Marshall’s lead in operating with boldness and confidence.
Former athletic director Jim Schaus got the Marshall era started by hiring him. He departed in 2008 and Sexton hired many new faces. While the former regime likely would not have been comfortable marking its territory in downtown St. Louis, Sexton didn’t hesitate.
“It is about announcing our arrival on a national stage,” Brewer said. “We want to show that we belong.”
Beginning Friday, the rest is up to the basketball team. The Shockers will either keep this historic season rolling or they will slink home, in disappointment, past the billboards.
“We’re two possessions away from playing for a national championship (in 2013),” Marshall said. “So, we can. Butler has proven that. Teams like us, programs like us, have a chance now. We’re in this tournament, this region, as a No. 1 seed. We have a chance.”