Before the Final Four run, the 35-1 season and the streak of seven consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament had started, an upstart Gregg Marshall had met his toughest coaching challenge with the 2008-09 Shockers.
Marshall was in his second season at Wichita State, fresh off an 11-20 debut campaign and desperate to prove himself as a program-builder at a higher level in the college basketball world.
But in mid-January of that season, things were not going according to plan. WSU lost its first six games in Missouri Valley Conference play, capped by a 13-point loss at Missouri State against a team that ultimately finished last in the conference.
The turnaround that came next changed the program and laid the foundation for the Shockers to become one of the nation’s most consistent programs.
Four members of the 2008-09 Shockers returned to Koch Arena this week to practice with the Aftershocks, a WSU alumni team competing in The Basketball Tournament, and told their memories to the Eagle about this crucial stretch of the Marshall era. The head coach himself addressed the stretch on his radio show last December.
Here is a collection of their stories:
Wichita State finished non-conference play with a 6-5 record, but lost six straight games and fell to 6-11 overall and 0-6 in conference play. During that stretch, WSU lost two games down the stretch (a 60-58 loss at home to Bradley and a 74-69 loss at Drake).
J.T. Durley, redshirt sophomore: Man, those were the struggle days. Them days were so tough. When a team gets on those losing streaks, man, coaches go crazy. They feel like they have to turn it around to save their job, so we felt like we were getting the brunt-end of it: running, long practices, long film sessions. It was brutal.
Toure’ Murry, freshman: We were young and every game was tough. We had lost a couple close games, and we just needed one game to get that momentum going.
J.T. Durley: It was almost like I was used to it because the year before we were 11-20. We had two five-game losing streaks. It felt like we were going down that path again.
Gregg Marshall: That was a dark, dark time.
One game during that stretch that stuck out to those involved was a 78-54 loss to Northern Iowa. It was broadcast on national television, and Marshall had emphasized how important a good showing was. WSU stayed within two at halftime, but was outscored by 22 in the second half. It was what happened after the game that was even more memorable, however.
J.T. Durley: It was an ESPN game and we just got blasted.
Toure’ Murry: That was one of the worst days when I was here at Wichita State. Not only did we lose, but we lost really, really bad. They out-played us, they out-toughed us, they out-everythinged us.
J.T. Durley: We were coming back from the airport on the bus and Marshall got up and told (trainer) Todd (Fagan) to start taping ankles on the bus. We were headed back to Koch and they were wrapping ankles for us to practice. That was during Christmas break, so we didn’t have school the next day.
Toure’ Murry: As soon as we get on the bus, Marshall was like, ‘You’re not going home. We’re going to figure this out together, even if I have to stay up all night and work this out with you guys.’
J.T. Durley: I walked through (Koch Arena) and looked up, and back then we had the old scoreboard and they had a clock, and it was like 2:37 in the morning and we were walking up the stairs to go practice in the practice gym. And then we walked back down and it was like 4 something.
Garrett Stutz, freshman: That practice definitely still sticks in my mind.
J.T. Durley: Them boys today don’t know nothing about that work right there.
The late-night practice didn’t help turn things around. WSU lost its next three games with the breaking point coming following a 68-55 loss at Missouri State. Both teams entered the game 0-5 in conference play, but Marshall felt like WSU’s players overlooked the opponent in the loss. WSU fell behind 11-2 before the first media timeout and committed 11 first-half turnovers. After the game, Marshall kept his players in the locker room for an hour to air out feelings.
Gregg Marshall: We win the opening tip and Clevin Hannah goes nonchalantly to get the ball and a Missouri State guy comes running in and gets the ball and they score. And then the same happens to start the second half. It’s our ball after halftime and we’re supposed to be running a play, but we can’t even get the ball in bounds. They just locked us up physically. We were just not engaged.
Gregg Marshall: I asked Clevin, ‘What was that? What kind of effort was that?’ And he said, ‘Coach, we looked at them boys and we just thought we were going to beat them. They was 0-5.’ And I said, ‘So were we.’ Kids just don’t see reality. It’s amazing they just thought, ‘Oh, they’re not very athletic, we’re going to beat them.’ But we were worse.
Clevin Hannah, junior: We had a meeting right there in the locker room after the game. We were probably in there for an hour, just sitting there talking and everyone was saying what they thought. (Marshall) was asking, ‘What’s the problem? What’s going on here?’ Everyone was pouring out their feelings. Those were some tough times.
Garrett Stutz: We were 0-6 and we were in a little bit of shock playing at such a high level this quickly. Losing that game to another 0-5 team was a real gut check.
Toure’ Murry: That was the first time we had really talked it out. We were losing and it was tough, but that brought us all closer together.
Gregg Marshall: I had to sit my team down and ask some serious questions. I did some things I’ve never done before or since with a team. I basically had to take a stand.
Toure’ Murry: That was a hard night to swallow. A lot of egos got checked, even the coaches. We let it all out there and from that moment on, we came with a different attitude.
Gregg Marshall: It was the only time in my college career I haven’t done post-game radio.
After the losing streak reached six at Missouri State, WSU returned home and had two days to prepare for Creighton, the top team in the Missouri Valley.
Garrett Stutz: It was like, ‘Wow, if we don’t turn this around then we’re looking at one of the worst seasons in school history.’
Clevin Hannah: We knew this was the end of the road. (Marshall) seemed serious about changing things up if we didn’t turn it around. I think that meeting helped us regather ourselves.
Toure’ Murry: We were never scared of anybody, we just made a lot of mistakes because we were such a young team.
For the first time that season, WSU organized a black-out for the Koch Arena crowd for the nationally-televised game against Creighton on an icy Saturday night.
Garrett Stutz: The crowd knew that we were struggling. All of those Shocker fans could sense that we might be at that breaking point.
Toure’ Murry: I’m so used to seeing the yellow, so that blackout hit different. It gave us a different energy, a different vibe and put us in a different frame of mind. We knew we had to get this win, not just for ourselves but for the fans.
Clevin Hannah: Every game is crazy here, but that day I remember feeling this different type of energy. That black-out game, that was different.
J.T. Durley: You kind of get numb to the crowd because you’re so focused on the game and there’s 10,000 people screaming there every game. You try to block it out, but with that blackout, there was no way. That was the craziest game at Koch Arena I remember playing in.
Clevin Hannah: In my mind, there was no way we was losing that game.
WSU pounced on Creighton, taking a 13-3 lead after seven minutes. The Shockers built a 14-point lead in the first half and fended off every Creighton rally in a comfortable 74-61 victory.
Garrett Stutz: Luckily, that game didn’t go the other way because I don’t know how much lower we could have gone. Our fans helped pick us up and we got it rolling from there.
Toure’ Murry: Creighton was the big dog back then. Once we beat them, we knew we could play with anybody.
Gregg Marshall: After we won that Creighton game, I remember thinking, ‘Okay, now we’ve got a chance.’
Toure’ Murry: We learned how to persevere on our bad days and how to overcome those times.
J.T. Durley: I can honestly say that our team that year was so close. Everything stayed in the locker room. We won together; we lost together; we got in trouble together. We were a tight-knit group. That year really bonded us together.
Garrett Stutz: After that, everything just kind of went our way after that and we used that momentum the rest of the year.
WSU followed the Creighton victory with a 64-58 win over a good Illinois State team, then swept the three-game homestand with a 51-50 win over Evansville. The Shockers erased an 11-point deficit with 8:33 left with Murry hitting the game-winning three-pointer with 9 seconds left. What looked like a lost season was suddenly turned around when WSU closed out the regular season winning nine of its final 13 games, including all eight of its games at Koch Arena with wins over the top three Valley teams in Creighton, Northern Iowa and Illinois State.
WSU headed to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley tournament with momentum and confidence. The Shockers dispatched Missouri State in a play-in game, which set up a now-infamous game against Creighton. WSU fell behind by 22 points in the second half, only to storm back and take a 62-61 lead with 7.1 seconds left on a go-ahead three-pointer by Murry. Creighton rushed down the court and attempted a shot that missed and fell out of bounds with the buzzer sounding.
Gregg Marshall: That was the incredible sun dial clock on the last play. We won the game. The buzzer sounded and we were ahead.
J.T. Durley: We got cheated. Everyone knows we got cheated.
After review, officials put 1.9 seconds back on the clock and gave Creighton an in-bounds play underneath its own basket. Even more controversy arose when the Bluejays in-bounded to MVC Player of the Year Booker Woodfox and the clock did not start on the catch. Woodfox bobbled the entry pass, but was able to pull up for the game-winning jump shot as time expired to allow Creighton to prevail 63-62.
Gregg Marshall: The ball hit the kids’ hands, rolled up his arm, across his body and he grabs it, rips it across and dribbles twice and there’s still like 0.5 seconds left on the game clock when he shot it. Something wasn’t right.
J.T. Durley: We definitely felt like we were going to win that tournament and go dancing. We had a lot of momentum and we were playing good. I think the black-out game had propelled us for the rest of the season. We had that taste of what we needed to do to win.
The loss ended WSU’s hopes at a Cinderella run at a NCAA Tournament, but it proved to only be the beginning for a program on the rise. Behind a young core of Murry, Durley, Stutz and David Kyles, WSU improved with each season: a CBI appearance to cap off the 2008-09 season, a NIT appearance the following year, a NIT championship run in 2011, then a NCAA tournament berth when Murry, Stutz, Kyles, Joe Ragland and Ben Smith were seniors in 2012. It kicked off the most successful stretch of the Marshall era, as Cleanthony Early, Fred VanVleet, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker made their way into the program and guided the Shockers to a Final Four season in 2013 followed by a 35-1 season in 2014. WSU became a nationally-recognized brand in the process and Marshall still credits that 2008-09 turnaround as the first step in that process.
Gregg Marshall: I’d like to think we established that losing is totally unacceptable and losing in general is unbelievably disliked around here. You either understand that and get with it and do everything you possibly can to help us not lose or you don’t.
J.T. Durley: Marshall makes you have a tough skin. In the real world, you don’t get a second chance. He really did help us prepare for the real world. We was ready for any obstacle after Wichita State. I feel like life has been easy because of what he took us through.
Garrett Stutz: I like to think that every year since Marshall showed up has been a stepping stone for the program. He just keeps making WSU better and takes them higher and higher. And that was the first stepping stone.