|Marshall has been a head coach since 1997, and only once has he had a team finish under .500. (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Matt Norlander
Wichita State is going to the NCAA tournament. Count on that as much you would Syracuse, North Carolina, Kentucky or Ohio State to get to the field of 68. Gregg Marshall has his team performing at the highest of “mid-major” levels once again; his shockers sit at 17-3, on the verge of another 20-win season … yet find themselves an afterthought on the national landscape.
That a team like this isn’t catching eyes and tugging ears isn’t surprising — plenty of three-loss teams from outside the Big Six have yet to get their true do; Murray State will soak up all the non-BCS conference attention so long as that bagel sits on their ledger — but normally such a strong team in the Missouri Valley would command more attention by late January. Perhaps that speaks to first-place Creighton and its First Team All- America-worthy forward, Doug McDermott. We’ve already said, and will continue to say, plenty about the Bluejays.
But for now let’s discuss the Shockers’ not-so-shocking season so far and the man responsible for it.
It’s ironic that Marshall gets so much more attention in the offseason than he does from November to February. Marshall’s become one of the top targets for major-conference jobs. He could have easily not been the subject of this post. He could’ve left Wichita State last spring, after his team won the NIT, or the year before that. He passed on the N.C. State job (with a $1.9 million-per-year contract on the table) and the Texas A&M job and other jobs too. He’s done interview after interview, becoming a guy that’s on many an athletic director’s cherished “list,” should they choose to bail on the current coach in search of the next big one.
“In 13 years as a head coach, every year when you have success — Winthrop or Wichita State — when you have success, something is bantered about,” he said by phone last Friday, one day before his team beat Southern Illinois 85-42 at home. “In nine years at Winthrop, I probably had nine interviews. Maybe two one year and none the other year.”
It’s about timing as much as it is — or, in some instances, isn’t — about money for Marshall. He desperately wanted the Tennessee job that went to Buzz Peterson in 2001. He passed on a particularly tough Big East gig (that was offering more money) in 2007, when he opted to leave Winthrop for Wichita State. Winthrop was willing to name its court after him. But it was only if Marshall agreed to an ironclad 10-year contract, no outs involved.
He couldn’t do it. Loved Winthrop, but didn’t want his options taken away.
Through four and a half seasons at WSU, Marshall’s 99-58 and once again showing why he’s earned all that coveting by the bigger boys each April. He’s thrilled with where he is now, though. And in talking to him, I think the way this season’s gone so far has only enhanced just how happy he and his wife were to make the decision to not leave Wichita last year. What was once thought to be a gamble turned into a no-brainer.
Because he stayed, Wichita State is one of the best clubs from outside the Big Six. Marshall’s got a team with a load of experience but also just enough young guys to keep it unpredictable. Among non-Big Six teams, his point guard, Joe Ragland, is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons at the 1 in the country. Seven-footer Garrett Stutz — who Marshall laments lacks some of “my nasty” when it comes to how he plays — leads the team, by one decimal, in scoring (12.4 per game to Ragland’s 12.3). Stutz is day-to-day with a back injury.
The team has a great win over UNLV. Not only great, but definitive. The Shockers beat the Runnin’ Rebels by 19 in early December. It’s the win that will vault them to a seed line higher than they would have had without the victory.
The winning’s felt good and reassuring, but these days it’s the loss to Creighton that eats at Marshall. It’s like he can’t wait to punch back. The rematch comes in Omaha on Feb. 11. Marshall maintains the Dec. 31 loss was the only game this season when all five of his seasons played poorly simultaneously. The losses to Alabama and Temple in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off? He can’t avenge those two, the only other scratches from the schedule. Creighton’s another story. Creighton’s when Wichita State can get the chance to become the story of the Valley.
“I don’t know that we’re better than Creighton. I think that if we played 10 times, the series would go 4-6, 5-5,” Marshall said.
When I offer up the fact this team is top-20 in points per possession scored and allowed — something that’s never happened with any of his teams before — Marshall is shocked and please. He took the opportunity to reflect on 52 months spent in Kansas.
“When we got here, it was a little bare,” Marshall said. “Mark Turgeon had done a wonderful job. They were eighth-ranked in the country in Christmas of ’06, and then lost 14 out of 22, and it just fell apart. There were transfers, and when l arrived April 14, 2007, we had seven scholarships to give.”
The first year wasn’t good, but it remains the only time Marshall’s coached a team under .500. Since then, the real mark of his work as a coach is shown in the chart below. Every year since his arrival in Wichita, his teams have noticeably, incrementally gotten better in scoring more points per possession and allowing few points per possession, save the minor dip (103.8 to 102.2) on offense from year one to two. It's incredibly tough to get your team to improve like this year each over the course of five seasons. He’s approaching a ceiling, which is a good thing — there isn’t much room left to climb! Currently the Shockers are 14th overall in both adjusted offense and defense on KenPom.com.
Marshall attributes the ever-rising rankings to his change in strategy. Up until two years ago his teams jogged the ball up the floor after a made basket, always running a methodical set play. Now it’s pushing more frequently, evidenced by the 66. 8 possessions per game, also an all-time high for Marshall at Wichita State.
“Maybe I’ve just gotten smarter,” Marshall joked. “Maybe I’m playing more to the strengths of my group than I was earlier in my career. And as for our rebounding, we always say the defensive is possession is not over when the shot is taken. It is only over when you have the ball secure and are now on offense.”
If WSU keeps winning like this, and Marshall’s able to get the Shockers to their ninth NCAA tournament (the first under him), the calls will come again once the season ends. Don’t bank on him leaving, unless an incredible deal comes along. Marshall has coming in what he thinks is the best recruiting class he’s ever assembled. He and his wife would like to see their children graduate from high school in Wichita.Nevertheless, we're approaching a point where Marshall's work will be noticed as much during the season as after it. He's earned it, and his team deserves the same amount of credit as well.