Even before the words “Andrew Wiggins” were quite formed, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall smiled in anticipation and filled in the rest.
“ ‘Best team in the state,’ ” Marshall said in his office on Wednesday, parroting Wiggins’ proclamation after the Jayhawks' freshman phenom helped Kansas pulp Kansas State on Saturday. “And that’s fine. Hey, good for them. They should feel that way. But I think Nick, (Andrew’s) older brother, might have another opinion.”
With a playful pause, Marshall reiterated, “And he is the older brother.”
Alas, the Shockers' sixth man didn’t fully engage the fray.
“It’s just fun between us,” said Nick Wiggins, a Wichita State senior. “But it could turn real serious if there ever turns out to be that game.”
As for Marshall’s stance?
“It doesn’t matter unless we play them,” he said, reminding that that could only happen in the NCAA Tournament in the foreseeable future. “If I were them, I wouldn’t play us either. I understand. It doesn’t bother me, and it really has no effect on us.
“Because we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can get to the Final Four and be No. 5 in the country, or better, maybe and we haven’t played them yet since I’ve been here. So that has no bearing on what we do. We don’t need it.
“Now, would it be great? It would be great if they wanted to (and Kansas State wanted to). But it’s not imperative.”
In fact, the only thing imperative for Marshall and his fifth-ranked Shockers (18-0, 5-0 Missouri Valley) is and has been the next game, in this case on Saturday against visiting Indiana State (14-3, 5-0).
That tunnel vision helps explain their encore from the 2013 Final Four: becoming one of the three remaining undefeated teams in major-college basketball with what appears to be a reasonable chance to run the regular-season table.
That stature is all blessing and no burden for the intense, often-agonizing Marshall, whose mantra this season is “appreciation.”
And it doesn’t seem to faze the group led by forward Cleanthony Early and guards Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, a team Marshall admires because of its sheer ability and the maturity to play like every game is important.
“It makes you more excited, it makes it more fun, when you’ve got a target on your back,” Nick Wiggins said. “I feel like we’re the team to beat right now.”
Now, Marshall, 50, still says his stomach “grumbles and rumbles” and it’s hard to ever feel at ease during the season. And there might be some practices where he doesn’t really seem to appreciate the moment.
But he sat up in his chair and made clawing gestures as he described the grind of being a “29-year-overnight sensation.”
“So I want to appreciate it now,” he said. “Is that asking too much?”
If the winning streak persists and the Shockers ascend closer to their first No. 1 ranking since the 1964-65 Final Four season, it might be surmised that the scrutiny and pressure would feel like, say, a boulder on their shoulders, to borrow from Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light.”
But there was no hint of that in Marshall, who considered the idea, smiled and started singing.
“I like that: `With a boulder on my shoulder, feeling kind of older, I tripped the merry-go-round,’ ” he crooned, which perhaps influenced words he chose a few minutes later. “You know on the merry-go-round, you have the rings? They’re just trying to gather as many of those as they can.”
The combination of faith in his team and this time in his career helps explain how Marshall managed to take a rather mellow approach when the Shockers were down 18 points at halftime Saturday at Missouri State.
“He didn’t come in cussing and fussing and blasting everybody,” Wiggins said. “He just came in with a plan. And it worked.”
As Marshall considered his options, his internal monologue went like this:
“If this is the end of the run and I come in and just blast them, I lose them for a couple of days. And guess what, we’re 16-1. You can’t do that!”
This is how that came out to his team:
“ ‘Here’s the deal: You’re one of four or five unbeaten teams. Everyone’s watching. They’re seeing this halftime score, and now they’re going to evaluate how you handle this.
“Are you going to go out and play intelligently, with great conviction and purpose and passion and energy? Or are you going to be ding-dongs and take terrible shots and lose your cool and your composure?
“How are you going to handle this?’ ”
Back stormed the Shockers to win 72-69 in overtime.
“They did it the right way,” Marshall said.
Now, they may or may not be the best team in the state: With the nation’s toughest schedule, 15th-ranked KU (12-4) was easily atopcbssports.com
’s RPI approximation as of Wednesday evening; the Shockers were 10th with the 87th-toughest schedule
But after last season and well into this one, the Shockers don’t have to be encumbered by that kind of parochial thinking, either.
“We don’t have to say, ‘Boy, we can be a Sweet 16 team,’ or, ‘We can be an Elite Eight team,’ ” Marshall said. “We know we can win the whole doggone thing.”
And if they get to play Kansas along the way, so much the better.
“I’d love to see that happen, obviously,” Wiggins said. “The state of Kansas would love to see it happen.”