SALT LAKE CITY Gregg Marshall has a chance Saturday night to add a 10-carat diamond to a gold-studded career as a basketball coach that started in 1985.
The 50-year-old Marshall spent Friday making the media rounds as a guest on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” show, followed by an appearance on “The Jim Rome Show.”
He and Wichita State are one of the flavors of the minute in college basketball, a stick of Juicy Fruit just after it’s been put into your mouth.
But we all know how fleeting that sweet taste can be. So, after thumping Pittsburgh by 18 points in the NCAA Tournament’s second round Thursday, Marshall and his Shockers now step to the center stage, under the brightest lights, to play the No. 1 team in the country.
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They crave another taste of limelight.
This is where 28 years in coaching has led Marshall. To this game, this night, with a chance to make an even bigger name for himself and create a buzz Wichita State basketball hasn’t experienced in a long time.
“It’s a moment, yeah, a big game,’’ Marshall said.
But that’s about all he said about the potential ramifications of the game because he’s caught up in preparation, not hyperventilation.
Marshall is aware of the game’s significance. Friday, he went national. Beat Gonzaga and he and the Shockers go international, the talk of the basketball universe.
Which, I’m guessing, is a notion met with some resistance by WSU basketball fans. Of course they want a Shocker win over the Zags. What they could do without the certain chatter of Marshall and his coaching future that would undoubtedly follow.
It’s the catchiest of Catch-22s, a game that has been played frequently at WSU throughout the Marshall and Mark Turgeon years.
Shocker fans should be assured that Marshall and his family – wife, Lynn and two kids, sophomore Kellen and seventh-grader Maggie – love being in Wichita. They loved being in Rock Hill, S.C., for nine seasons while Marshall coached at Winthrop.
“He’s happy where he’s at,’’ said WSU associate head coach Chris Jans. “He’s not a guy who thinks the grass is always greener. It’s not coach-speak when he talks about his affinity for Wichita State and how much he likes and wants to be here. He loves it here.’’
The Shockers will be going up against a Gonzaga team coached by Mark Few, in his 14th season as the team’s coach. For 10 years before that, he was an assistant.
Few often exclaims his love for Spokane and Gonzaga, to the point now where nobody even considers him leaving. Of course, 15 consecutive NCAA Tournaments have proven he can win at Gonzaga as much as he can win almost anywhere else.
Marshall is finishing his sixth season at WSU. The Shockers have won 108 games in the past four.
“You can’t buy happy and we’re happy,’’ Marshall said. “We’re very comfortable here. I have two kids who view Wichita as their home. They didn’t want to leave South Carolina and now they don’t want to leave Wichita. And that’s a factor for me.
“I make these things a family choice. I don’t just say, ‘Hey, pack your bags, here we go. Daddy’s been offered $2 million to go get his brains beaten out over here for three years before he gets fired.’ That’s not what I want to do. I like winning and I think we’re going to win here.’’
Hard to imagine the Shockers not making waves as long as Marshall is the team’s leader. He runs on energy that makes caffeine jealous.
“He’s relentless in his preparation,’’ said Devon Smith, WSU’s manager of player development. “He’s relentless no matter what it is, whether it’s practice, games, ping-pong. No matter what he wants to win. And he will prepare to win unlike anybody I’ve ever been around.’’
The Marshall you see pacing the sidelines, shaking his wrist to re-position his watch, reaching for a security blanket in the form of a cup of a Gatorade-water mix, is an indication of the man’s tirelessness.
“He’s always on,’’ Jans said of his boss. “There’s never a day when he’s in the office or at practice that he’s not trying to improve the program in any way he can find. It could be a big thing, it could be a small thing. But he’s always looking for some way to give our team an advantage.’’
Marshall pushes buttons. He pushes envelopes. And he pushes everybody who plays or works for him.
It’s not unusual to see him scream at a player or even one of his assistants during a game, in public for everyone to see. Imagine what practices must be like.
What are they like?
Freshman Fred VanVleet needed a moment to come up with a word.
“It’s like … torture… ,’’ he said. “But it’s fun, it’s fun.’’
Yeah, sounds like a real blast.
“As long as you keep things in perspective, then you’ll get through it,’’ VanVleet continued. “But if you’re just thinking about practice that day, it’s going to kill you. He puts us through some tough times, but obviously it’s paying off now. There’s a method to all that madness.’’
Marshall is a beacon of varying emotions. He draws you near, sometimes to bite and sometimes to give a kiss to the cheek.
There are times when he’s short, but most often he’s a fascinating study of knowledge, and not just about basketball. He has many interests outside of the game, yet basketball consumes him. And if that statement seems to conflict, he is a conflicting man.
“He has almost maniacal tunnel vision,’’ Smith said. “He doesn’t care – as long as it’s within the rules – what it takes to motivate the people around him. He gives you room to do your job. But you better do your job.’’
There’s a basketball promised land, and the Shockers are climbing steps to get there. First a 25-win season in 2009-10, then an NIT championship in 2011-12. Last season, WSU made it to the NCAA Tournament, losing in the first round to VCU.
Now they have a tourney win and a chance at the model non-BCS basketball program in the country.
The Shockers haven’t played a No. 1 team in 45 seasons. They haven’t beaten one in more than 50.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,’’ Marshall said.
He didn’t want to go much deeper than that. He doesn’t want the game to be more about his legacy than his team’s chance to keep the season alive.
But there’s no downplaying the significance of Wichita State-Gonzaga.
“You’d have to ask him about the importance of a game like this,’’ Jans said. “But in my opinion, I think we all realize the magnitude and what it could do for Coach Marshall. And more importantly, what it does for Wichita State’s program.’’
This one is in prime time. Everybody who loves college basketball and the NCAA Tournament will be watching. The Shockers are on the cusp of doing something special with a coach who knows how to seize the moment.
You won’t want to miss this one.