Gregg Marshall opened a letter from Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who wrote to express his admiration for Wichita State’s basketball season. Bill Parcells, a former Shocker linebacker and Super Bowl champion coach, called to say the same.
That is how well the Shockers played this season — even football guys loved their style.
The legacy of the 2013-14 Shockers isn’t easy to summarize. They won 35 games before losing, something no other college team accomplished. They went 18-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, something last accomplished in 1928. They earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and finished No. 2 in the Associated Press top 25, both landmarks for the program. Senior Cleanthony Early and sophomore Fred VanVleet earned more All-American honors than any Shocker since Xavier McDaniel in 1985.
Marshall, who earned numerous national Coach of the Year honors, will remember all those things. Perhaps most of all, he will remember the team’s chemistry and unselfishness. The Shockers practiced hard, showed up on time, behaved off the court and got along in the locker room.
Sometimes, Marshall knows, coaches don’t enjoy their most talented teams because of egos and cranky personalities. Not so with this team.
“They were easy to be around,” he said. “We've got great players that are easy to coach, that follow a game plan, that stay steadfast in their belief that they want to be special.”
Special is as good a description as any. WSU went 35-1 and played in a third straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Shockers handled all the hype and the pressure of playing perfect with few bumps. They played nine Missouri Valley Conference road games and stopped a court-storming each time. That unity of purpose started with last season’s run to the Final Four.
“All of these guys are pretty calm, laid-back guys at the end of the day,” VanVleet said. “And that experience, that confidence allows you to not run out of your shoes in certain situations and allows you to stay in the moment, understand what it takes to get out of adverse situations, and understand what it takes to extend leads and keep leads and things like that.”
By backing up a the 2013 Final Four with this season’s No. 1 seed, the Shockers are in a period of national prominence the program hasn’t seen since the 1960s. The Shockers followed the 2011 NIT title with an MVC title and NCAA berth in 2012. They went 30-9 last season on their way to Atlanta. This season, a 35-0 dream ride ended against eighth-seeded Kentucky on Sunday. It ended too soon for the Shockers, but losing to Kentucky is more palatable than losing to a normal No. 8 seed.
“For them to be a No. 8 seed is a joke — the way they’re playing now,” Marshall said. “They passed the eye test, and it’s a number lower than eight.”
Expectations will remain high next season because VanVleet and starters Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton return and because the Shockers are averaging 29.2 wins the past five seasons. Their streak of five consecutive 20-win seasons is the longest in program history.
The Shockers will find Early’s blend of scoring, athletic ability and confidence hard to replace. He scored 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting against Kentucky and Marshall expects NBA scouts to take notice.
“He might have guaranteed himself a first-round draft pick,” Marshall said. “I thought he was pretty impressive.”
WSU must also replace Kadeem Coleby, who started 19 games, and Chadrack Lufile, who started 11, at center. Junior-college transfer Bush Wamukota and redshirt freshman Shaq Morris are possible replacements and WSU continues to recruit. While all scholarships for 2014-15 are accounted for, the Shockers are in the market for a front-court player who can help replace some of Early’s scoring. An experienced player, either from the junior college or four-year transfer ranks, is possible.
Regardless of the source, WSU can offer a recruit an attractive landing spot on a proven winner with three experienced guards who enjoy passing the basketball.
“We’re looking for the best player we can get,” Marshall said.
Morris and guard Ria’n Holland watched and learned this season as redshirt freshman. Morris faces an important off-season if he is going to prove to coaches he can contribute next season. Injuries held him back as a freshman and made it difficult for him to get in shape.
“He’s got to be able to play through little nicks and dings,” Marshall said. “In the summer and fall he probably missed more than 60 percent of our practices and workouts. He got better with that and started a more disciplined regimen of working out and getting himself in shape.”
In early February, Morris, 6-foot-8, stopped traveling with the Shockers so he could work with strength coach Kerry Rosenboom six days a week. He came to WSU weighing 282 pounds and is at 258 now with a goal of 250 in the summer. Morris, because of injuries, was not able to run the mile last fall during the team’s conditioning test. He cut his time from 7:58 to 7:34 to seven minutes and Rosenboom expects him to make the 6:30 mark by the fall, which is the standard for big men.
“He can’t be the player he needs to be until he gets in tip-top shape,” Marshall said. “He’s better, much better, than he was when he got here, but he’s still not where he needs to be.”
As Morris got in better shape, he showed more of his impressive skills in practice, blocking shots and rebounding in impressive fashion. However, he can’t go at full speed for more than a few minutes.
“Kerry, he pushes me every day,” Morris said. “I definitely need to be ready to step up. I need to be in the best shape of my life, ready to play defense.”
Holland, a 6-foot guard, worked on gaining weight. He came to WSU weighing 141 pounds and is up to 159 with a goal of 171 by next season.
“I can tell I’ve gotten stronger,” he said. “On defense, it translates to fighting through screens, holding my ground and boxing out. On offense, it helps me be strong with the ball, take body contact, and finish at the rim.”
Holland also paid close attention to VanVleet. WSU survived this season without a true backup at point guard, a role Holland and incoming freshman Corey Henderson Jr. will try to fill.
“He controls the pace of the game,” Holland said. “I learned some new moves double-between-the-legs-crossover (dribble) and jab step and go left.”
“I’m not going to rush,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant thing to do, but it’s an important thing to do.”