In a way, this season for the Wichita State men’s basketball team has been a rewarding one to coach Gregg Marshall. In another, his most challenging.
No one in the program, Marshall especially, was used to or tolerated losing. But at one point, the Shockers went nearly six weeks with a lone victory to celebrate. WSU lost six of its first seven games in the American Athletic Conference, punctuated by demoralizing blowout losses on the road to South Florida and Connecticut.
Losing takes a toll on any team, but it could have easily broken a Shockers team with eight of 11 players new to the Division I level and the three others adjusting to significantly expanded roles.
“I was certainly concerned with our youth and our inexperience,” Marshall said. “How we were playing and how we were throwing the ball to the other team and not defending and not playing as hard as they needed to play. Yeah, there was a lot of concern.”
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Internally, the Shockers viewed their next game, at home against SMU, as make-or-break. If WSU was to revive its season, the turnaround would begin there. If the Shockers lost, well...
“Had we lost that one and moved to 1-7, who knows what might have happened,” Marshall said.
Senior Samajae Haynes-Jones made sure WSU never had to find out, as he slashed to the rim and converted an up-and-under layup through a forest of SMU defenders to score the game-winning basket in WSU’s 85-83 win.
That buzzer-beater kicked off a stretch where the Shockers won nine of their final 11 regular-season games to finish with a 10-8 conference record and surge to the No. 6 seed in the AAC Tournament, both AAC records for teams who started 1-6. WSU (17-13) plays No. 11 East Carolina (10-20, 3-15) at 9 p.m. Thursday at the FedExForum in Memphis on an ESPNU broadcast.
“We feel like a new team,” WSU junior Ricky Torres said. “The leaders did a good job of keeping us together and now the feeling is way better. We want to keep this going.”
“When I think of 1-6, I think of the hard practices we had, the film sessions, everything,” WSU freshman Dexter Dennis said. “It was really, really tough. But coach never gave up on us and we never gave up on ourselves and that’s why we’re here now.”
During the dark times of the 1-6 start, WSU senior Markis McDuffie was maybe more frustrated than he’s ever been in his four years at WSU. The Shockers had won an average of 27 games in his first three years, but they sat at 8-11 as the calendar was ready to turn to February.
But as much as he was personally frustrated, McDuffie knew that he couldn’t let that affect his attitude on the team. He is the team’s leader and the younger players feed off the example he sets.
“It was very tough, but we always had to stay positive,” McDuffie said. “We were 1-6, but that was only seven games. We knew we were going to get better because of the way (Marshall) coaches us and the way he continues to push us to get better every day and find something to improve on every day. I knew from just being around here that toward the end of the season we always get better. That’s just what Shocker teams do. I knew these young guys were going to figure it out, it wasn’t going to linger all year.”
Marshall and his coaching staff of Isaac Brown, Lou Gudino and Tyson Waterman had a tight rope to walk during that stretch. Film sessions were tough. Practices were even tougher. But coaches also had to keep the inexperienced players in mind.
“As a staff, we’ve had to exhibit a lot of patience and coach them and teach them and prod them, while understanding it’s not going to be exactly how you want it to be right now,” Marshall said. “It’s a process. Everybody always talks about the process. Basically we’ve learned to enjoy the process instead of letting it kill you. It’s been difficult at times, but it’s also been pretty rewarding.”
As the season progressed, WSU became a more complete team. It no longer relies so heavily on its two seniors, McDuffie and Haynes-Jones, evident by their shooting numbers during WSU’s 9-2 close to the season: McDuffie is shooting 38 percent and Haynes-Jones 37 percent.
It’s been three weeks since the offense really clicked, but the Shockers have reeled off a four-game winning streak anyway. The defense has improved considerably, although some of that has to do with the schedule easing up, and the Shockers have outrebounded their opponents 10 of 11 times during their 9-2 stretch.
Now WSU is back in a familiar role of the underdog, just a week earlier than normal. The Shockers are used to having to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament with middle seeds; now they set their sights on making a run in Memphis. Houston is the only AAC team with more wins than WSU in the final 11 games of the season.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve always been that underdog team that you have to watch out for,” McDuffie said. “Because of our coaching, the way we play, how hard coach pushes us. That’s what we do and that’s why a lot of teams don’t like to play us. You never know what could happen. You see Cinderella teams all the time, teams no one would ever have thought would have been in that spot and then they go far in the tournament. If we take this one game at a time, we can do something special.”
WSU certainly appears to have its first-round opponent pegged. The Shockers beat ECU by 16 in Greenville, N.C. and by 17 in Wichita, as the Pirates shot a combined 35.1 percent in both games.
A win would give the Shockers a rematch with Temple, a game that still haunts Marshall because the Shockers gave up an 11-point lead with less than four minutes to go and ultimately lost in overtime. But this time around, Temple (23-8, 13-5) is a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament and will be playing desperately to give its coach, Fran Dunphy, one last run before he retires at season’s end.
It’s a situation Marshall clearly is missing this time of year.
“We’ve won 17 games with 10 new players and I’m proud of them,” Marshall said. “But I still wish we could have won a couple more and gotten to 20 and maybe be on that bubble.
“We’ve gotten better. I don’t know exactly the starting point and the end point, but we’ve gotten better over the course of the season.”
The Shockers may not be in the at-large conversation, but Marshall has crashed a party or two in his day. He hopes all of the ups and the downs, the adversity, the growth this season is ready to culminate with a special run in Memphis.
“We’re in a situation now where if we want to go to the NCAA Tournament, we’re going to have to win four games in a row,” Marshall said. “I’m excited, anxious, ready to see what our guys can do now that we’ve gotten to postseason play.”
No. 11 seed East Carolina vs. No. 6 Wichita State
Records: ECU 10-20, 3-15 AAC; WSU 17-13, 10-8
What: American Athletic Conference Tournament
When: approximately 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM