Bob Lutz: Shockers try for Final Four with recruits big-time schools don’t see

03/29/2013 6:09 PM

08/06/2014 12:37 AM

Ohio State has two McDonald’s All-Americans on its team. Wichita State has guys who like Quarter Pounders.

That’s a culinary way of saying there’s a difference, in perception at least, of the kinds of players on the two teams that will battle Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.

But it’s not that easy.

A recruiting service like Rivals.com might attach a number or a star to recruits. But Rivals has never been an accurate barometer of a player’s intangibles. So while Saturday’s game at Staples Center might look like a mismatch when you check the individual glossies of the players involved, Ohio State coach Thad Matta knows better.

“As I go out recruiting every year, I can’t tell the difference between the 20th player and the 120th player in the country,’’ Matta said. “You know what I’m saying? There’s parity across the board. Those players for Wichita State have obviously chosen a great system to play in and Coach (Gregg) Marshall has done a tremendous job in terms of putting those guys in a position to be successful.’’

Ohio State won’t notice a spike in its ability to recruit based on this Elite Eight run. It probably won’t happen if the Buckeyes win a national championship, either. They’re already recruiting at the highest level.

For Wichita State, though, this kind of exposure can lead to new riches of all kinds, including a wider recruiting base.

“Maybe we don’t get the complete player,’’ Marshall said. “And maybe that’s the difference in us and some of the elite programs like Ohio State who have five-star recruits walking in the door.’’

The only Wichita State player to attain Top 100 status from the recruiting services is Fred VanVleet, from Auburn High in Rockford, Ill. But VanVleet didn’t rise to that level until his senior season, after he had committed to WSU. He could have chosen to break that promise and go to a higher-profile school. But he didn’t.

His reward is a bright future and playing in one of the biggest games in Wichita State history.

The key Shockers include a former walk-on, a Division I transfer, junior-college transfers and some high school recruits.

“We’ve piecemealed it together,’’ said WSU associate head coach Chris Jans. “That’s an accurate way to say it and it doesn’t bother us. All of these three-star, four-star, five-star rankings of recruiting classes — I can tell you our staff never looks at that. We couldn’t care less about what the so-called experts are ranking our class. We’ve never even had the top recruiting class in the Missouri Valley Conference.’’

Marshall, Jans and the other WSU recruiters look for players who fit. They’re demanding coaches who preach a defense-first mentality. They value toughness and talent equally.

“We like athletic guys,’’ Marshall said. “Whether they can defend or not walking in the door, if they’re athletic enough and they’re tough enough and they’re coachable, then we can get them to defend.’’

Like any coach, though, Marshall is always looking for better players. He thinks the recruitment of VanVleet, a four-star player who had coaches beating down his door during his senior season, can be a breakthrough.

“That’s a top-80 guy in the country and now he’s hitting daggers in this tournament,’’ Marshall said. “And he won’t be the last player like that we get. He’s the first, but he won’t be the last. I feel like once you get Fred VanVleet, then maybe the flood gate can open. I’m not going to say we’re getting one-and-done guys next year that rival (John) Calipari and all that he does at Kentucky. But we’re going to try to get players that make us better and can help us sustain this level of success.’’

That doesn’t mean Marshall and his staff will stop using their discerning eyes.

Outside of Arkansas-Little Rock, South Dakota State and Fort Hays State, not far from his Scott City home, Ron Baker didn’t have much to choose from. Neither Kansas nor Kansas State contacted him, even though he was an All-State player.

But Jans saw something in Baker and convinced Marshall to take a look, too. The Shockers invited the 6-foot-3 Baker to walk-on for a season before giving him a scholarship. And now, as a redshirt freshman, he’s being called “Baker the Shot Maker” by his coach.

“I don’t think about not being highly recruited much,’’ Baker said. “But it’s something that makes me feel good about myself. Just because you’re not recruited big-time or from a big city doesn’t mean you can’t play at this level.’’

Teams such as Ohio State, who routinely chase the nation’s best high school players, swim in the riches of doing so. But there is also occasional fallout, such as when a highly-touted player leaves school early for a professional career.

“The BCS guys, they’ll lose a guy they don’t expect to lose at times,’’ Marshall said. “Maybe they’re ready for the next level, maybe they’re not. We generally coach four-year guys and maybe that’s an advantage we have. It’s helpful to have grown men, mature guys, relative to freshmen just out of high school.’’

Marshall’s recruiting for next season is finished and he likes what’s coming.

“We’ve got a great class,’’ he said.

It has high school guards Ria’n Holland and D.J. Bowles, high school center Shaq Morris and junior college forward Earl Watson, along with transfer Kadeem Coleby, who is sitting out this season.

“We stole a couple of guys, in my opinion, that can play at higher BCS conferences and in Elite Eights and Final Fours,’’ Marshall said. “But other people didn’t see that in the fall. That’s what we have to do, to uncover the hidden gem. But maybe now we get a little more high-profile recruit. And that will be fun.’’

The last time the Shockers made a similar run in the NCAA Tournament, in 2006, recruiting residuals were non-existent. Mark Turgeon, WSU’s coach at the time, endured a difficult 2006-07 season after a fast start, then left for Texas A&M.

Marshall and his staff were forced to start over.

In six years, they’ve built an Elite Eight team. And they might just be getting started.

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