Whether you were there in 1965 when the Roundhouse said thank you to “Dave the Rave,” or if 2006 is your idea of the good old days, when Wichita State’s basketball team made a run to the Sweet 16, you no doubt have waited for Saturday to arrive.
Wichita State’s first basketball game is here against a fellow member of the American Athletic Conference, the Shockers’ new home. The eighth-ranked Shockers get to shed the mid-major letter jackets they’ve worn – or maybe been saddled with – for decades.
WSU’s new conference was even nice enough to introduce the nation to its newest member on national television (CBS): 11 a.m. Saturday against four-time NCAA champion Connecticut in Hartford.
This has been a long time coming for a successful program looking for bigger challenges.
Shocker basketball was a national force in the 1960s, when it was a member of a Missouri Valley Conference that was as dominant nationally as any league. In an era when only the conference champion went to the NCAA Tournament, the Shockers reached the Midwest Regional final in 1964, then won it a year later to reach its first Final Four.
But as powerhouse programs began to leave for other conferences, the Missouri Valley dipped into a second-tier conference. Programs would occasionally play their way into national prominence – Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979, WSU from 1981 to 1983 behind Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and Xavier McDaniel – but staying on the national stage was difficult.
In the 1990s, a decade fans would like to erase, it looked as if WSU might never again be a national power, much less a top-25 team. Then three things happened:
▪ Then-athletic director Jim Schaus hired Mark Turgeon, who had been a college head coach for two seasons but whose pedigree included learning under legends Larry Brown and Roy Williams at Kansas. Turgeon slowly remade WSU into a Missouri Valley contender, reaching three National Invitation Tournaments before the 2006 team reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
▪ With Turgeon building, Schaus began fundraising for a badly needed renovation to 45-year-old Levitt Arena. The $25 million project kept the Roundhouse shell but most everything else was new, ending the long debate of whether WSU should refurbish its arena or wait for a downtown arena to be built and play games there. Koch Arena has been the right choice for almost 15 years.
▪ When Turgeon left for Texas A&M after seven seasons, Schaus made another great hire when he brought in Gregg Marshall from Winthrop University, where he coached the Eagles to seven NCAA appearances. By Marshall’s fourth season, WSU won the NIT and a year later began a string of NCAA appearances that will reach seven in March.
In 10-plus years under Marshall, WSU has won 75 percent of its games, reached the 2013 Final Four, gone 35-0 (NCAA record) before its only loss of 2013-14, beat in-state rival Kansas in the 2015 NCAAs, and raised its coach’s yearly salary to $3.3 million.
OK, so maybe the mid-major label was lifted in 2013. But a new conference sealed the deal.
Over the next two months, Shocker fans will confront the interesting dynamic of watching many more close games against better conference opponents than in the recent Valley days, when it was rare for a home game to be decided by a winning margin of less than 20 points.
Shocker fever is, deservingly, everywhere. Used to be that only specialty shops stocked Wichita State clothing and memorabilia. The big chains had Kansas and Kansas State clothing, but WSU gear was hard to find in WSU’s home city.
No longer. And look no further than TV commercials from the local Ford dealerships for Shocker love. One dealer’s pitch man is wearing a Shocker cap. The other dealer’s family and extended family wear WSU gear and end a commercial with “Go Shocks!”
Enjoy the big time, Wichita State faithful. You and the Shockers have earned it.