Wichita State won a program-high 29 games. The eight losses, however, threatened to define the season until the National Invitation Tournament.
The Shockers led Connecticut by nine points in the final 10 minutes before whistles, foul shots and Kemba Walker ruined the Maui Invitational opener. They lost at San Diego State. Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois _ the Missouri Valley Conference's eighth-place team _ won at Koch Arena. Virginia Commonwealth won in Wichita on its way to joining Connecticut in the Final Four. Missouri State clinched the Missouri Valley Conference title with a chest-thumping win over the Shockers. Indiana State dumped them out of the MVC Tournament.
That's eight losses _ seven by seven points or fewer, and four turned on one possession.
The home losses mystified coaches and players. WSU dominated teams on the road _ winning eight MVC games, seven by double digits. A 68-54 win at Creighton ended a 17-game losing streak in Omaha.
Out of that frustrating scenario came redemption in the NIT. The Shockers took it seriously from the start. The opening minutes of a 76-49 win over Nebraska provided a blueprint. WSU got its offense rolling with three-pointers by Joe Ragland and Graham Hatch to build a 10-0 lead. Gabe Blair blocked two shots and the Huskers never recovered. Forty minutes later, the Shockers had their biggest postseason win, and the possibilities of the NIT looked better. Nobody in the NIT figured out how to slow the Shockers. Their balanced attack bettered a string of star-driven teams.
An overtime win at Virginia Tech brought the Shockers home to sold-out Koch Arena. A win over College of Charleston sent them to New York, their deepest advance in 12 NIT appearances. WSU embarrassed Washington State 75-44 in the semifinal, with Garrett Stutz scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Two nights later, the Shockers wore down Alabama 66-57 to win the NIT.
The NIT showcased WSU at its best _ tough defense and rebounding, unselfish offense that thrived on three-pointers and the inside scoring of J.T. Durley, Blair and Stutz.
A look back
Highlight: Hatch made back-to-back three-pointers to knock out Alabama in the championship game of the NIT. The Shocker erased much of the disappointment from early March with an impressive run through five good teams in the NIT. By the end, few fans seemed upset at missing the NCAA Tournament. Winning games in the NIT proved to be a blast, and the Shockers created the kind of memories that sustain the program and help fill Koch Arena.
MVP: J.T. Durley. The Shockers played their best when the offense started with Durley and worked its way to the three-point shooters. Always a skilled scorer, Durley improved his defense and upped his rebounding intensity during MVC play. When he became a complete player, he solidified his spot on the All-MVC team.
Biggest surprise: Conventional wisdom says teams win with a leader at point guard. WSU won big, but in an unconventional manner. It took three point guards to get the Shockers through the season. Toure Murry surprised most observers by taking over early in the season. Newcomer Joe Ragland played too meekly. Sophomore Demetric Williams played too fast. When Murry stumbled, Ragland took over in mid-February as he learned how to use his scoring skills within the offense. By the end of the season, WSU enjoyed three players with point-guard skills. Unconventional, and successful.
Biggest disappointment: In non-conference play and the NIT, the Shockers played more quality teams and beat more quality teams than any other MVC team. That should translate into an MVC title. It didn't, because of three home losses. The loss to lowly Southern Illinois ranks as one of the most painful in recent memory. SIU coach Chris Lowery said the pressure at Koch Arena got to WSU, and it's hard to argue. The senior-laden Shockers had no excuse for that 56-53 loss. It cost them dearly.
J.T. Durley: Marshall calls Durley the heartbeat of the team. His scoring provided WSU its best option when it needed a big basket. His ability to command double teams opened up shots for other players. Durley learned how to pass out of those double teams and improved his defense and rebounding as a senior. Grade: A.
Gabe Blair: Blair played the season with a fractured vertebra. It rarely showed. He set the tone with his hustle and defense. Blair saved his best basketball for March _ averaging 10.7 points and nine rebounds in NIT wins over Virginia Tech, College of Charleston and Washington State. Grade: A.
Aaron Ellis: Nobody exemplified the Shockers more than Ellis. The senior happily rebounded and defended without much fame. He became known as WSU's best setter of screens. When teams neglected to guard him, he used a mid-range jump shot as a accurate weapon. He went 4 for 4 against Alabama, scoring eight points in a typically efficient and understated effort. Grade: A.
Toure Murry: Murry, in many ways, had the toughest test this season. He had to play point guard, a position he dabbled in his first two seasons. He handled that spot well enough to rank fifth in the MVC in assists (3.4) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3). He is better off at shooting guard, as a rash of turnovers and bad decisions in high-profile circumstances proved. He made second-team All-MVC on the strength of his defense and rebounding. He reversed a late-season slump with a strong run in the NIT. Murry guarded a series of top scorers and made their lives difficult. He also scored in double figures in three NIT games. Grade: B+.
David Kyles: Kyles gave his most consistent performance in three tantalizing seasons at WSU. He made three-pointers at better than a 50-percent clip in non-conference games before inevitably cooling off. After back-to-back scoreless games in February, he reasserted himself and finished strong. Kyles showed the strongest signs yet that he can translate his athletic gifts into consistent production. Big things await if he can build on that for next season. Grade: B.
Joe Ragland: Ragland played cautiously for most of the season, a little too cautiously for coaches. When he took the wraps off his game, the Shockers got better. Ragland scored in double figures in six of WSU's final 11 games. His ability to drive and score in the lane over bigger players gave WSU an option it lacked. Like most transfers, he struggled defensively at times. Grade: B.
Ben Smith: Smith's three-point shooting carried the Shockers during a stretch of MVC games when most shooters slumped. He seemed good for one or two powerful offensive rebounds a game. His role diminished late in the season when teams focused more defenses toward him. Smith must become a better ball-handler and passer for an increased role next season. Grade: B.
Graham Hatch: Hatch and Smith complemented each other perfectly at small forward. Hatch is a better defender, passer and dribbler. When he didn't shoot well, Smith gave the Shockers offense. Hatch excelled in the NIT, making 13 of 20 threes, and earned Most Outstanding Player honors. His work ethic and hustle won't be forgotten around the basketball office. Future Shockers will be judged on the Hatch scale in the weight room and practice gym. Grade: B.
Demetric Williams: Williams fell off course in the Maui Invitational with turnovers and it took him months to regain Marshall's trust. When he slowed down and made good decisions, Williams gave WSU a solid backup who could make spectacular plays and defend. He is capable of more and his arc of improvement should make him a bigger contributor in his final two seasons. Grade: C+.
Garrett Stutz: Stutz is a backup center most teams envy. However, he too often played like a backup. Foul trouble and turnovers often forced Marshall to root him to the bench, wasting his offensive skills and height. When he did earn significant minutes, Stutz again showed impressive potential. He scored 20 points against Tulsa, 16 against Bradley in the MVC Tournament and 24 against Washington State. He is WSU's returning big man next season. Grade: C+.
Coaching: Coach Gregg Marshall embraces expectations and challenges. He never questioned WSU's status as the MVC favorite. He jumped on the goal of making the NCAA Tournament. Any other approach would have been silly. The Shockers, however, didn't always handle that pressure, as the losses at Koch Arena show. Marshall gets major points for making a 10-man rotation work. He juggled his lineup and some nights didn't know who to ride until the second half. It wasn't always pretty. It was the best way for this team to play. Five NIT wins _ three over higher-seeded teams _ proved that. Not making the NCAA Tournament is a disappointment; winning the school's first national tournament balanced it out to a large degree. Grade: A-.
Marshall set a tough standard by improving WSU's win total and percentage each season (78.4 percent this season). If he does that again, the Shockers will be a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. Here's a more realistic goal _ three straight 20- win seasons for the third time in program history. With five of the top six scorers back, the Shockers should again contend for the MVC title. A non-conference schedule that includes a strong field for a tournament in Puerto Rico, UNLV, Utah State and Tulsa offers potential for quality victories. Newcomers Carl Hall, an NJCAA All-American, and Jake White, a fourth-team Parade All-America, need to contribute in the front court.
_ Paul Suellentrop