Bob Lutz

Valley watches WSU price itself out of the league

Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, center, is the coach fans around the Missouri Valley love to hate — because he’s winning so much.
Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, center, is the coach fans around the Missouri Valley love to hate — because he’s winning so much. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State has been picked to win another Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball championship. If it happens, it would be the Shockers’ fourth straight title and fifth in the past six seasons.

The Shockers are unquestionably dominant in the Valley, where they’re not only winning but usually winning by double digits. Since the 2011-12 season, Wichita State is 79-11 in the MVC, which includes a 2012-13 record of 12-6.

Now, all good things must end. These things go in cycles. And please factor in every other cliche that might apply here.

Marshall talks about leadership and sophomore Markis McDuffie.

Regardless of any of them, it’s understood around the Valley that for as long Gregg Marshall decides to coach at Wichita State, the Shockers are going to be hard to catch.

Marshall has taken WSU to heights no one imagined. He’s a master recruiter and motivator who, even after all these years, loves the art of practice. These great Shocker teams are made in the practice gym, where they’re pushed, prodded and produced.

The Shockers’ success, everyone knows, has led WSU president John Bardo and athletic director Darron Boatright to embark on a study of the university’s place. Is there an opportunity join a new conference? Is football a viable option?

Wichita State’s basketball success over the past several years has, of course, made these questions worth finding answers.

Just three seasons have passed since Creighton left the Missouri Valley. Could the league hold up after the loss of another of its most long-standing and successful members?

And how is Wichita State perceived around the rest of the MVC these days? It’s easy to love Marshall in black-and-yellow country, but everywhere else he’s the guy in the black hat.

I asked around to a few of my reporter friends who cover teams in other Valley cities. Here are some of the interesting comments:

“I’m not sure there’s a consensus opinion about Wichita State leaving the Valley. Most of the people I talk to seem to understand why they’re exploring options, but they don’t seem to take seriously the possibility. The question I repeatedly hear: ‘Where would they go?’ 

And this: “Fans still talk about the days of the 1980s when the Valley had coaches such as Gene Smithson, Nolan Richardson and Dick Versace that spiced up the league and made it more interesting and entertaining. They see that again with Gregg Marshall and the machine he has built in Wichita and like nothing better than to beat the Shockers.”

And, finally: “Knowledgeable fans don’t begrudge the Shockers their success — or the right to look around at better league options. Those fans know that the Valley is in trouble if Wichita State leaves just a few years after Creighton departed. But the majority of fans fall into another category and view the Shockers as the guy in the middle-class neighborhood who refurbishes his modest home into an upscale mini-mansion and stew while they continue to let their own homes deteriorate.”

There’s a wide gap between Wichita State and every other Valley team and it’s reflected most in what Marshall is paid. He makes in the neighborhood of $3.3 million per season, probably pretty close to what the other nine coaches in the conference make combined.

You can vow to do everything in your power to keep up, but the Shockers have lapped the field. While Illinois State and Northern Iowa have done a decent job of staying on that next tier over the past couple of seasons, that next tier is barely visible from Wichita State’s perch.

This season, though, presents hope for the WSU challengers. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are finally gone, both having landed in the NBA. There are legitimate questions about the Shockers now, not just made-up concerns to make everyone feel more hopeful.

It’s rare for a Valley basketball program to have players like Baker and VanVleet, let alone at the same time. So perhaps this is the time to pounce. The question becomes: Does any other team in the Valley have the legs to make such a leap?

Wichita State is still a prohibitive Valley favorite. And if Marshall’s history tells you anything, it’s that he’s pretty good about replacing players. Even really good ones.

Markis McDuffie talks about moving on without Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.

There’s a next-man-up mentality at Wichita State and sophomore forward Markis McDuffie and redshirt freshman Landry Shamet could be stars-in-the-making. Perhaps Conner Frankamp will find his high school mojo as a redshirt junior. Or maybe freshman Austin Reaves, a 6-foot-5 shooter-passer from Arkansas, is the real deal.

Wichita State’s roster is deep. It includes promising new players and veterans ready to take on larger roles. The Shockers will miss their departed icons, for sure, but they won’t be paralyzed by their absence.

Something tells me Wichita State isn’t going anywhere, at least not as it relates to being the top team in the Valley. Only time will tell how long the Shockers are for the conference. The rest of the Valley might want a piece of these guys, but good luck getting them to stand still.

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