Gregg Marshall wasn’t sure if it was smart at the time, but he knew he needed to do something to get Wichita State out of its rut with the Shockers headed into February with a losing record.
Marshall saw a road map in the rest of WSU’s schedule to continue its postseason streak, but it’s also unusual for him to start talking about postseason goals seven weeks beforehand. But Marshall wasn’t convinced trying to motivate players to be excited to be 12-11 or 14-13 would work, so in February he decided instead to have the Shockers zero in on the National Invitation Tournament.
“I started talking about our experience in 2011 (when WSU won the NIT championship),” Marshall said. “About playing at Madison Square Garden, going to Times Square with the big, interactive billboards and the lights flashing and staying in the Marriott Marquee right there in downtown Manhattan.
“I think it woke them up a little bit. It sparked their interest just enough.”
Wichita State fulfilled Marshall’s vision by winning 11 of its final 14 games and reaching the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament, which in turned earned the Shockers perhaps the final at-large berth into the NIT. No. 6 seed WSU (19-14) will play at No. 3 seed Furman (25-7) at 6 p.m. Central time Wednesday with the game streamed on ESPN3.
Now Marshall has a new goal for the Shockers centered around senior Markis McDuffie, who was born and raised in Paterson, N.J., which is right across the Hudson river from New York City.
“Now the goal is to take Markis home,” Marshall said. “You win three games and you get to go play at Madison Square Garden. You’re always trying to find little ways to motivate your team and keep them interested. It’s a long season and their minds are all over the place. They have lives to live and academics and girlfriends and families. Just keeping them interested and their minds piqued on an attainable goal.”
After playing in the last seven NCAA Tournaments, Marshall admitted it felt strange to make the NIT the end goal for the Shockers.
But when he was honest with himself, with so much youth and inexperience, the NIT felt like it would be a legitimate achievement for this group.
“Privately, and I’ll say this now, my goal was to win 20 games and to get to the NIT,” Marshall said. “I thought that was a far enough away goal to be something that was hard for us to do, but still possible. I would’ve loved to be back in the NCAA Tournament, but with this group, with our youth and our inexperience, we’re excited about this opportunity.”
An interesting storyline for the game will be Marshall’s quest to win his 500th career game in his home state of South Carolina. Marshall, who currently has 499 career wins at Winthrop and WSU, was born in Greenwood, about a 70-minute drive from Furman’s campus in Greenville.
Marshall said Tuesday he is expecting it to be a family reunion of sorts in Greenville. Marshall’s family has deep ties to the area. His grandmother lived in Simpsonville, which is in Greenville County, and his mother attended Hillcrest High School in Simpsonville.
“It’s right there in my backyard,” Marshall said. “It’s the closest Division I university to where I grew up. There will be a lot of family and friends there and we’ll get to catch up.”
Marshall, who said he later applied to attend college at Furman, recalled watching some of Furman’s greatest basketball teams in the early 1970s when he was a young player himself. He can still remember watching Furman, led by coach Joe Williams, knock off in-state rival South Carolina, coached by Frank McGuire, in the 1974 NCAA Tournament.
“The next summer I went to the Joe Williams camp at Furman, instead of going to the Frank McGuire camp,” Marshall said.
This year’s Furman team might be the best since those teams Marshall grew up watching. The Paladins won a school-record 25 games this season and believed they had a deserving case for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a No. 41 ranking in the NET.
Marshall was very complimentary of Furman after watching the team on film and compared its chemistry, passing and preciseness to Davidson under Bob McKillop. That statement was echoed by Marshall’s former assistant, Steve Forbes, now the head coach at East Tennessee State, which beat Furman by 23 at home but lost to the Paladins in Greenville by 30.
“He just said you better be ready because you’re going into a hornet’s nest,” Marshall said of Forbes’ message to him. “(Furman coach Bob Richey) can really coach and they’re going to spread you out. We know after watching video what we’ve got in store for us.
“They pass the ball well. They cut really hard. They’re very precise on offense and they’ve got some really good players that are very connected on the offensive and defensive end. We’re going to have to play well to advance.”
While Furman might play similarly to Davidson, what sets the Paladins apart is 6-foot-8 senior Matt Rafferty, who averages 17.2 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.1 blocks, while shooting 61.7 percent from the field.
Rafferty (6-8, 215 pounds) is the biggest player in Furman’s rotation, as it typically surrounds him with four shooters dotting the perimeter. Furman will funnel the ball to Rafferty on the perimeter and let him attack or whip skip passes all across the court to open shooters. Furman has the 16th-highest three-point rate in the country and makes an average of 10 shots from distance per game.
“He’s an uncanny passer,” Marshall said. “He really likes to dime people on the weak side. Kid is talented and he can score, he can pass and he rebounds. A lot of their offense runs through him. But they have. other good players too.”
Guard Jordan Lyons averages 16.1 points, while Clay Mounce (10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds), Alex Hunter (9.1 points, 3.3 assists), Noah Gurley (8.9 points) and Andrew Brown (7.7 points) round out Furman’s core.
WSU proved it can hang with NCAA Tournament teams at its conference tournament last week. Wednesday’s game will require a similar effort on the road at Timmons Arena, where Furman won 13 of 15 games this season and nearly filled its arena by averaging 2,192 in attendance its final 10 home games.
“We realize this is a very good team,” Marshall said. “You don’t go to Villanova and win and not be a very good team.”
If WSU wins, it would make the 30-minute drive to Clemson if the No. 2 seed Tigers beat No. 7 Wright State on Tuesday evening. But if Wright State wins, then WSU would host a final game at Koch Arena this weekend.
No. 6 Wichita State at No. 3 Furman
Records: WSU 19-14, Furman 25-7
When: 6 p.m. Central time Wednesday
Where: Timmons Arena (5,000), Greenville, S.C.
Streaming: Watch ESPN
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
About Wichita State: This is WSU’s 13th NIT appearance and first since winning the 2011 title... This is the 11th straight season the Shockers have played in a postseason tournament under coach Gregg Marshall. The streak began with a 2009 CBI bid followed by two straight NIT bids in 2010 and 2011... Marshall has one previous victory over Furman, coming on Nov. 23, 1998 during his first season at Winthrop. Current WSU assistant Tyson Waterman was Marshall’s starting point guard in Winthrop’s 60-59 win over Furman... A win would give the Shockers their 10th straight season with at least 20 wins... WSU has held 11 of its last 13 opponents to 40 percent or less from the field... Despite failing to top 40 percent on offense in 17 games this season, WSU has managed to. win eight of those games... WSU shot 65.6 percent from the foul line during non-conference play, but that has since increased to 76.9 percent since the calendar flipped over to 2019.
About Furman: This is Furman’s 11th all-time postseason appearance, its second NIT appearance and first since 1991. Furman played in the CIT in 2016 and 2017... This is the first meeting between Wichita State and Furman... The NIT will feature four major rule changes during games: the three-point line will be extended by 20 inches; the free throw lane will be widened by four feet; the shot clock will reset to 20 seconds after an offensive rebound; and team fouls will reset at the 10-minute mark with two free throws being awarded to teams after the fifth foul... Furman is one of just 20 teams in the country to have won at least 23 games in each of the last three seasons... At age 35, Furman coach Bob Richey ranks as the youngest coach in the top 25 winningest active Division I coaches... Furman garnered national attention for its 76-68 overtime win over then-eighth-ranked and reigning national champion Villanova in front of a sellout crowd. It was the first ranked win for Furman since 1991 and its best win since an 83-70 win over No. 4 North Carolina in 1979.