The memory from 2013 is still vivid for Gregg Marshall, and it’s not the one you would expect.
It was his 50th birthday — Feb. 27 — and two of Marshall’s long-time buddies, former fraternity brothers from his days as an undergrad at Randolph-Macon, were in town. The Shockers were riding a five-game winning streak that had righted the ship after three consecutive losses and had a game that night against Evansville.
Marshall was hoping for a win, of course, and a night of celebration with his homeboys. Evansville had beaten the Shockers six weeks earlier in Evansville. It was just the second loss after a 15-1 start.
Revenge had to be on the Shockers’ minds. But revenge never materialized. The Purple Aces stunned Wichita State again, beating the Shockers 59-56.
“It was also senior night,” Marshall said. “I was in my 15th year of coaching and I was 14-0 on senior night. We played poorly in that game and Evansville played very well. That loss and the one to Creighton in the final conference game cost us at least a tie for the Missouri Valley Conference championship. My birthday was a somber affair, to say the least.”
Marshall and his wife, Lynn, retreated to their house after the Evansville loss. They didn’t show Gregg’s friends a very good time.
“We just sat around, very unhappy,” Marshall said. “But as my wife reminds me, my 51st year got a lot better.”
The Shockers jumped on a magic carpet after losing to Creighton in the finals of the MVC tournament in St. Louis. Slotted as a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament — and we all know what usually happens to nine-seeds — Wichita State knocked off Pittsburgh in the first game in Salt Lake City.
That set up an interesting matchup with the No. 1 seed in the West, Gonzaga. The Zags were 32-2 and probably the weakest of the No. 1 seeds. Still, it was hard to construct a scenario in which the Shockers’ NCAA road didn’t end in Salt Lake.
And after a 12-0 Gonzaga run midway through the second half had put the Zags up by six, hope started to dissipate.
Then the craziest thing happened. Wichita State went on a scoring spree, putting up 23 points on nine possessions. The Shockers couldn’t miss. Tekele Cotton knocked down a three-point dagger. Ron Baker sized up a baseline jumper. And the biggest shot of all came from freshman point guard Fred VanVleet, who after fumbling the basketball off the dribble, steadied himself and made a long three-pointer that gave the Shockers a five-point lead and some cover from a Gonzaga team that wasn’t going quietly.
It was a remarkable comeback against an outstanding team, one that seemed destined to finally make a charge into the Final Four after so many near misses.
The charge, instead, was mounted by Wichita State.
The Shockers had conquered Salt Lake City. Now it was on to Los Angeles, where a possible Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas State had been squashed by La Salle, which knocked off the Wildcats in the second round.
La Salle had what it took to beat K-State and Mississippi, but nothing close to what was needed against WSU, which beat the Explorers 72-58 at the Staples Center. It was on to the Elite Eight, where the Shockers manhandled Ohio State for much of the game before a late Buckeyes comeback fell short.
The unthinkable had happened. For the first time in 48 years, Wichita State was off to the Final Four.
By now, it was silly to put anything past the Shockers. They were riding shotgun with Karma, Kismet, Destiny and Fate. Not even a national semifinal game against the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Louisville, could shake Wichita State’s confidence.
The Shockers arrived in Atlanta as the country’s Cinderella to everybody but them. They didn’t see it that way and refused to try on the slippers.
A team that had lost a game at Southern Illinois not quite two months earlier was stoked by slaying giants. And none stood taller than Louisville, which had recovered from its own three-game losing streak in January to win 17 of 18, the only loss in five overtimes at Notre Dame on Feb. 9.
The Cardinals looked unbeatable. But so, too, did the Shockers, a fact lost on many of the national pundits who picked Louisville in a walkover.
Wichita State led by 12 with 13:35 to play. Louisville looked lost and scared, like a small child who had lost his parents at the zoo.
But the Cardinals had rallied to win five games after trailing by nine or more points. They might have looked lost and scared, but they also knew there was time.
Sure enough, Louisville got it going. Luke Hancock started making shots. No surprise there. And so did Tim Henderson, whose two huge three-pointers were a shock to the Shockers. Henderson, a junior, had played fewer than four minutes per game and averaged less than two points.
The Cardinals won 72-68, ending an incredible Wichita State run that defined this city’s sports year.
And the Shockers have followed it up with a 13-0 start to a new season, rising to No. 8 in the AP rankings behind powerhouse programs Arizona, Syracuse, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Duke.
And yes, ahead of Kansas. For now. But let’s not get carried away.
“From a basketball and professional standpoint, 2013 has been outstanding,” Marshall said. “Without question, the highlight of my coaching career. I’ve had pretty good teams and pretty good years, but this took it to another level.”