Bob Lutz: It’s Shockers’ time to make St. Louis theirs

03/06/2014 12:12 PM

08/06/2014 10:12 AM

Gregg Marshall ducked the question, simple as it was.

“Do you like St. Louis?” I asked before the Wichita State basketball coach and his team departed for the Gateway City to play in this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

You know the Shockers’ history in the tournament. It’s brief. They’ve never won a Valley tournament championship in St. Louis, where the tournament has been staged since 1991.

Even in the past five seasons, when Wichita State has beaten up the rest of the Missouri Valley to the tune of a 72-18 conference record, the Shockers are 6-4 in the tournament.

What is it about this city? What is it about the Scottrade Center, where the games are played?

It’s the million-dollar question that still surrounds a Wichita State team that has won an NIT, broken through to get to the NCAA Tournament and then busted down the door into a Final Four the past three seasons. But in St. Louis, the Shockers have just busted, like a millionaire gone cold on the Vegas slots.

You better believe Marshall and his team want this to be the year, finally, that they cut down the nets after Sunday afternoon’s championship game. Wichita State has breezed through the MVC without a loss and with 15 double-digit wins in 18 games. There’s no team even close to the Shockers, who won the regular-season championship by six games.

They’re the New York Yankees of the 1950s and the rest of the conference is the expansion-era Seattle Pilots.

Wichita State has three first-team all-conference players and could easily have had four. The Shockers have Valley Player of the Year Fred VanVleet. Senior Cleanthony Early looks like a pro. Sophomore Ron Baker is destined for greatness if he’s not there already. Junior Tekele Cotton is the best defensive player in the conference this year and for many years. There’s a three-headed monster inside — Darius Carter, Chadrack Lufile, Kadeem Coleby — that makes life miserable for the other big men in the MVC.

And with respect to the rest of the coaches in the Valley, Marshall is a cut above. His players play the way you wish your players played. He instills confidence and stresses teamwork and unselfishness. The Shockers get contributions from everyone and have now for years. Marshall’s teams rarely disappoint.

And yet there’s this strange inability to win the Valley tournament. The Shockers have missed here with a lot of good teams over the years. And a lot of not-so-good teams, too.

Last year, Wichita State lost by three points to Creighton in the championship. The Shockers wanted that one desperately and not just because it would have meant the long pursuit of a tournament title would have been attained. It was actually more because they were playing Creighton for the final time as a conference foe.

But the game slipped away, as disappointing of a defeat as Marshall has endured since he’s been at Wichita State.

The team, you could say, was able to regroup.

“It would be nice to win in St. Louis,” Marshall said this week. “But like I told the guys last year, we couldn’t win in St. Louis, but we could win in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.”

He’s referring to the the NCAA Tournament, in which the Shockers swept through two games in Salt Lake and two more in L.A. to reach the Final Four in Atlanta. That’s a trade-off he would take every year until the end of time.

Still, I know Marshall. And I know how much it has to eat at him to have never won the Valley’s big event in St. Louis.

“We just need to win as many games as we can down the stretch,” Marshall said. “We’re going to play in two different tournaments now that are one and done. One with three possible games and one with six possible games. It would be nice if we could play all nine of them.

“I think we could be playing down in Derby, or maybe down in Winfield or out in Great Bend and these guys would want to win. It doesn’t matter where we play, they want to win.”

Marshall had a good time in St. Louis last October. He was in a good seat at Busch Stadium for Game 4 of the World Series, cheering for his beloved Boston Red Sox. He saw the three-run homer in the sixth inning by Boston’s Jonny Gomes that changed the tone of the Series. Boston won that game, 4-2, to even the Series at 2-2; the Red Sox won Games 5 and 6 to clinch the world championship.

“That was fun,” Marshall said.

So, does Marshall like St. Louis?

“I’m not going to answer that one,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because I just don’t want to answer it.”

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