April 13, 2013

Bob Lutz: One season shakes up everything at Wichita State

The ante has been upped.

The ante has been upped.

Wichita State’s basketball program skipped several stages of development in reaching its first Final Four in 48 years this season. The Shockers aren’t going to shock anyone ever again.

The cat is out of the bag. Wichita’s little secret has been shared with the country. Gregg Marshall will never be “Greg” Marshall again. Everybody gets it now. There are two g’s.

Those Wizard of Oz references were cute this year, but people better find something else to reference now. I remember when those La Salle players were on the interview stage in Los Angeles, speaking whimsically about having never heard of Wichita before their game against the Shockers a couple of weeks ago. Those of us who were listening smiled. Then the Shockers went out and clubbed the Philly boys to reach the Elite Eight. They know Wichita now.

George Mason, Butler and VCU have reached Final Fours in recent years, setting the tone for Wichita State.

But quick, somebody tell me where George Mason, Butler and VCU are located.

Wichita State is located in Wichita. When it comes to athletics, this city revolves around Shocker basketball. Always has, always will. It’s the nature of the beast, and after a Final Four and near win over eventual national champion Louisville, the beast is on the loose.

In 2006, when George Mason became the first “mid-major” in years to make it to a Final Four, the Patriots defeated WSU in a Sweet 16 game. It was the Shockers’ first NCAA Tournament in nearly 20 years and I thought our city was going to come unhooked.

Well, try a Final Four on for madness. Some parties have been going on for more than a week.

Shocker basketball is closer to the top of the mountain than it has ever been. It’s scary up there.

But if there’s a man you want leading this thrilling, unexpected and dangerous expedition, it’s Marshall. If there’s a coach who can sustain this level of success, or at least stay in the ballpark, it’s Marshall.

After their Sweet 16 run in 2005-06, the Shockers reached No. 8 in the national rankings the following season. Then the bottom dropped out. Under Mark Turgeon, who had done a spectacular job pulling WSU out of an abyss when he was hired in 2000, the Shockers finished the 2006-07 season at 17-14. There wasn’t much in the cupboard when Turgeon left for Texas A&M after the season.

The Shockers had failed to capitalize on its rise to national prominence. Instead, they went regressed.

That’s unlikely to happen this time and Marshall is the reason.

He has never once looked at the WSU job and seen anything other than gold. He hasn’t complained about how difficult it is to recruit or to schedule games at Wichita State. He has gone about building a first-rate program, raising the kind of money it takes to arrange for charter air transportation to and from games and to and from selected recruiting trips.

Nobody ever told Marshall that Wichita State wasn’t a big-time job, so he treats it as such. He makes a pretty penny, hires outstanding assistant coaches and demands everyone perform.

Marshall spent years and years working his way up as a coach. As he says often, his father wasn’t a coach and he doesn’t come from any long lineage of coaches. His mentor is John Kresse, who coached for 23 years at College of Charleston despite success that could have lifted him elsewhere.

Who’s to say Marshall, who just completed his sixth season at WSU, won’t stay for 23?

Marshall is driven by winning. That hardly sets him apart in the coaching profession, but what does make him different is that he sees an end game at Wichita State. There are no stepping stones in Wichita for Marshall.

That’s not to say that a better job won’t come along. Or that Marshall will never depart.

But when a man finds contentment, which Marshall obviously has at WSU, it’s not always wise to pull up stakes. And it’s definitely not easy.

It’s interesting that VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens have remained at their schools since reaching Final Fours, despite many offers to leave. Butler, which played in back-to-back national championship games under Stevens, has parlayed that success into membership into the new Big East Conference, which begins play next season. VCU has gone to the Atlantic-10.

I would argue that neither Butler nor VCU carries the same cachet in their cities — Indianapolis and Richmond — that Wichita State carries in Wichita. Neither has Wichita State’s history, either.

Wichita State is in a better position to remain viable than either Butler or VCU, but all three lean heavily on their coaches to stay strong. And Smart, Stevens and Marshall are happy — and hugely successful — where they are.

WSU, like Butler and VCU, should be proactive in looking for its best conference options. Staying in the Missouri Valley Conference, even with the recent loss of Creighton to the new Big East, might be the best thing for Wichita State. But it’s in the university’s best interest to at least see what, if any, opportunities are out there.

Is becoming a 12th basketball member of the Mountain West a possibility? What about that new Big East? Yes, it’s a conference that has aligned itself with private Catholic schools, but with a Final Four to sell could WSU get a secular foot in the door should that conference expand to 12 teams?

The Shockers are in an amazing position, thanks to the best basketball season in the school’s history. This is the time to be aggressive. There’s a great big world out there and it’s worth exploring.

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