Spring 2014

Running Down a Dream

The Wichita State Shockers went to war for nothing short of the perfect season. They won every single one of their regular-season battles. They made history. They made Shocker Nation proud - even, perhaps especially, in the one bout they lost.

Shocker basketball
At home in the Roundhouse, above, the Shockers were undefeated in 2013-2014 regular-season play. 

They were a team on a mission. A team with the dream of hanging a national championship banner from the high rafters of Charles Koch Arena. They came tantalizingly close. One win at a time. Thirty-five times.

After their stunning Final Four run last year, the Gregg Marshall-led Wichita State Shockers – well balanced and formidable – slammed down a history-making season not to be forgotten. Shocker seniors Cleanthony Early, Chadrack Lufile, Nick Wiggins and Kadeem Coleby move on, but Tekele Cotton and the sophomore core of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet will likely make the team a stalwart in the Top 25 next season – and keep the noise level in the Roundhouse at dangerous decibels.

With their vocal fans behind them every step of the way, WSU's 2013-14 men's basketball team made a run at perfection and became one of only four NCAA Division I teams to finish the regular season without a loss since 1975-76, when Indiana went 32-0 and took the national title. The Shockers' winning streak gained them entry in the hoops history books as the first team to ever go 35-0.

"Thirty-five straight wins and No. 2 in the Nation – are you kidding me? Nobody does that. Just unbelievable," says Bob Hull, a WSU men's basketball assistant coach during the 1996-97 season who now provides color analysis on NewsRadio KNSS 1330 AM for Shocker road games alongside play-by-play announcer Mike Kennedy '71. "After the 2013 Shockers made that exciting run to the Final Four, we all wondered what the 2014 team and Gregg Marshall could do to top it."

Dave Dahl '71/74, a former Shocker basketball player who suited up for WSU from 1969 to 1971, is also a color analysist for Shocker basketball, providing his keys-to-the-game commentary during home games and sharing analysis duties with Hull on the road. Dahl says, "What we experienced this year was simply magical, different but equally as significant as the year before. Wichita State accomplished something that had never been done in the history of college basketball – all eyes were on the Shockers, triumph after triumph as the world checked in daily to see if their winning streak was still intact."

Wichita Eagle sports reporter Paul Suellentrop, who covers Shocker athletics for the daily paper and blogs about WSU teams and players at kansas.com/shockwaves, notes, "Every winning streak in college basketball will be measured against WSU's 2013-14 season for a long time, and that's a nice reward for fans who supported their team with devotion you don't find at many schools."

Shocker devotion – expressed rock concert loud. Jet plane loud. Fireworks loud. Roundhouse loud. This is how Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lake described the raucous atmosphere at the Feb. 11 WSU vs. SIU game in Koch Arena: "Wichita State fans bring the noise to another level. The roar gets into your skull, giving you a mild case of vertigo." In a post-game interview, Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson, who during a crucial stretch of the contest was thwarted by the noise level in being heard calling for a timeout, credited the Shocker fans with winning the game, which the Salukis lost to the Shockers, 78-67.

About the players the fans were so vociferously backing, Hinson said, "I'll tell you what they are. They're versatile. They remind me of a rover in softball because those guys can play any position. The thing that's scary about them is that if one guy's not scoring Wiggins makes a three. If Wiggins doesn't make one, Baker does. Cleanthony goes off and gets points. Cotton scores a bunch off Northern Iowa. Every night they've got somebody different stepping up."

Voice of the Shockers Kennedy – like Hinson, much of the college basketball world and, of course, the Shocker fans themselves – became enamored with the players on Wichita State's team. "In 34 years of doing Shocker sports," he says, "this was as fine a group of young men as I have ever been around. Through all of the hype and attention and distractions, they remained humble and polite and focused on what was important. They represented themselves, their families, their university, and their community as well as anyone could possibly ask, and that's what made it so enjoyable to see them have the success they experienced."

Naysayers to the Shockers' success pointed out their weak schedule. It's true. Wichita State didn't have many powerhouses on its non-Missouri Valley Conference slate, and the 107-year-old MVC itself – the second-oldest NCAA Division I conference – has definitely seen stronger days. But WSU did play five teams that moved on to the NCAA tournament: the BYU Cougars, Tennessee Volunteers, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, the Eagles of North Carolina Central and the St. Louis Billikens The Billikens put up the toughest fight. The Shockers traveled to St. Louis for the Dec. 1, 2013, game, trailed at halftime and, with under seven minutes left, were down by seven points. The team then rallied, using a 9-0 run to post the 70-65 win – their eighth of the season.

Five wins later, the Shockers headed into conference play with a 13-0 record and the No. 8 AP ranking. They cruised through The Valley, racking up an 18-0 conference record. Their ride, however, wasn't without its hazards, three in particular. The Missouri State Bears took WSU into overtime on Jan. 11, and in February both Indiana State and Northern Iowa battled the Shockers to within double digits, the Sycamores losing 65-58 on Feb. 5 and the Panthers falling 82-73 on Feb. 8. Here's the thing: those three conference games were the only ones the Shockers won by fewer than double digits.

"As their winning streak grew," Kennedy notes, "I would occasionally ask one of the players if they were feeling any pressure at all, and the response was always that these guys liked each other so much, and enjoyed being around each other and playing together, that it was just fun. There was no pressure in doing something that was so much fun."

As March Madness got underway, the Shockers then accomplished something that had eluded WSU teams ever since the MVC tournament began being hosted in St. Louis – they won the Arch Madness tournament with a decisive 83-69 victory over Indiana State in the Scottrade Center and finished 34-0, the best start to a season since UNLV in 1990-91.

"The Shockers did it with talented players, to be sure," says Dahl about WSU's history-making season, "but more importantly they were a collection of self-sacrificing and high achieving young men. They were our kids, and they conducted themselves much like we would hope to conduct ourselves in our daily lives, only they did it with the eyes of the world upon them." Kennedy points out that it's "extremely difficult to put any group of 15 or more people together and get them to feel totally connected to each other, and equally committed to a common goal, but this group was special. They didn't even talk about ‘team,' it was always about ‘family,' and they truly were like a group of brothers who might kid each other, and even squabble occasionally, but when it came time to get serious, they were always there for each other." Hull adds, "Basketball fans from all over the country fell in love with this Shocker team, because they were so much fun to watch. They played hard, smart – together. They were great on the defensive end and even better on the offensive end. They shot it well, were tremendous on the fast break and may be the best passing team I've seen play in a long, long time. They played the game like most old-timers like me think the game ought to be played."

Bob Lutz '83, the Wichita Eagle's sports columnist since 1996 who has worked at the newspaper since 1974, has covered a lot of Shocker basketball. Over the past several seasons that means he has written about WSU's NIT championship in 2011 and last season's trip to the Final Four in Atlanta, as well as this season's unprecedented string of 35 wins. This trio of feats Lutz sees as springing from the identity Coach Marshall has spent years building for Shocker basketball: tough, tenacious defense; enough offense to win, but spread the scoring around; team play – a Shocker identity, call to action and rallying cry all in one that has come to be tagged PLAY ANGRY.

"Marshall preaches a team game and isn't one for individual accomplishments," Lutz says. "The uniqueness of Marshall's teams are how they come together as one. The Shockers are a close-knit team, well-balanced, a business-first type of team." Lutz adds, "Marshall has proven to be a basketball mastermind. He's a guy who could have his pick of any number of coaching jobs, yet remains loyal to Wichita State."

Hull's and Kennedy's opinions of Marshall – who arrived at WSU in 2007 after serving nine seasons as head coach at Winthrop University, where he led the Eagles to seven NCAA tournament appearances and transformed a previously undistinguished program into a mid-major powerhouse – parallels Lutz's. 

"I think," Hull says, "Gregg Marshall is this generation's Mike Krzyzewski – Coach K. All of his teams play tremendously hard, and play together. They play an exciting and entertaining brand of basketball that electrifies the Shocker faithful who fill the Roundhouse." Kennedy says, "I think it is safe to say that Gregg Marshall has placed himself in a very small group of the elite coaches in college basketball, right up there with Coach K, and Bill Self, and all of the great ones. What he has done at Winthrop, and now Wichita State, is incredible. I believed for a long time that WSU could still be among the best programs in the country, if the right person, with the vision of the potential that exists here, would stay long enough to make it happen, and it is very gratifying to see that belief become reality."

Hull says, "He's an outstanding recruiter, is amazingly open and honest with the media and tirelessly gives of himself to WSU alums, fans and charities throughout the Wichita area." Among Marshall's charity involvements was participating, along with 47 other NCAA basketball coaches, in a voting competition at ESPN.com/infiniti, with the coach with the most votes netting $100,000 for his favorite charity. Marshall chose the Wichita Children's Home; his mother had been adopted from a children's home in Greenwood, S.C., giving him a personal connection to the children served by the WCH. "These young people," he commented, "they deserve a chance to be successful." Marshall won $15,000 for the WCH on March 16.

A few days later, he and the Shockers were in St. Louis, back at the Scottrade Center, for the NCAA tournament, Midwest Region. Using statistician Ken Pomeroy's ratings – which looks at a team's performance, not just its overall record – the Shockers were the nation's fifth-best team entering the tournament, behind Arizona, Florida, Louisville and Virginia. The Midwest Region was a brutal bracket. Michigan, Duke, Louisville, Kentucky – they were all there for the No. 1 seed Shockers to battle past to reach the Final Four. Up first, though, were the Cal Poly Mustangs, which WSU dispatched 64-37 for its 35th win of the season on March 21. After the K-State Wildcats lost to the No. 8 seed Wildcats of Kentucky, the scene was set for what would later be described as the greatest 40 minutes from the round-of-32.

The night before Sunday's Wichita State vs. Kentucky game, WSU's chaplain and character coach Steve Dickie blessed the team's dinner, opening with the line, "We are mindful that true opportunity comes when men and mountains meet." After watching film of Kentucky, the No. 1 preseason team in the country, and its mountainous front line, the best in the Midwest Region bracket in offensive rebounding percentage, WSU associate head coach Chris Jans told the Shockers, "It's going to be a war down there." It was.

Wichita State won the tip, and the fight was on. The first half went to the Shockers. With 57.6 seconds left in the half, VanVleet stole the ball, taking it back the other direction and hitting Early in stride with a perfect bounce pass; Early skied for a slam, and drew a foul. The Shockers were up by nine, 37-28. Briefly. The Wildcats hit a three, keeping them within striking distance. The second half was bloody, back-and-forth combat, and Kentucky proved one play better, pulling out the 78-76 win, ending the Shockers' undefeated dream season. "It was a great college basketball game," Kennedy says. "It was like a classic heavyweight title fight, where each team kept taking the other's best shot and returning it with one that was equal or better. In the end, it took the most talented team in the country, playing what everyone acknowledged was its best game of the year, to finally beat the Shockers, in a down-to-the-wire, last-possession game." Suellentrop adds, "The Shockers handled all the attention gracefully and never let the pressure bother them. Even in defeat, they gained admirers after that memorable game against Kentucky." Lutz says, "A symbol of the Shockers' season? Well, ‘35 and one' is a pretty strong symbol."

Now that some time has passed since WSU's March 23 "and one," the feeling of unfulfillment, of what-might-have-been is still palpable. But the Shockers and Shocker Nation have perspective, and momentum. Take VanVleet, for example. He went home to Rockford, Ill., to speak at his high school's graduation. His key point: pursue your dream.


Running Down a Dream

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