For all the fuss over what Wichita State men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall called a “magic carpet ride” to 35-0 and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, for every believer it conjured, the streak also spawned ample skeptics.
At least it seemed that way to Marshall, who was conscious of “the detractors and the doubters — some people call them haters.”
“We had people taking shots at us like crazy for no reason,” he said in his office on Tuesday.
Even though any eye test and recent history emphatically stated otherwise, the perception was that the Shockers merely had fattened up on soft competition and were unworthy of being in the discussion for a No. 1 seed or as a national title contender.
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“No, they can’t win a national championship. Even though they went to a Final Four (in 2013) and had Louisville down by 12 (in the national semifinal) — they can’t do it,” Marshall said.
The twist on all this is that the Shockers were widely validated by their valiant performance in a 78-76 loss in the round of 32 to eighth-seeded Kentucky, which went on to the national title game.
“How strange is that? You win 35 in a row and you’re just OK,” he said. “Until you lose to Kentucky (in a) classic confrontation: ‘Oh, I guess they were legit.’”
All of which speaks to a certain mindset that remains intact in Marshall, 51, a mentality ingrained in a man who prides himself on not coming up through a blue-blood program and considers himself an “overnight sensation” three decades in the making.
It’s a never-ending sense of hunger to prove himself — tethered directly to muzzling the critics.
Why shouldn’t their voices be the ones he stops his scan button on, even if subconsciously, instead of those who’d lavish praise?
So amid a break from preparing his 15th-ranked Shockers, 21-3 overall and 11-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference, for Wednesday’s game against Indiana State, 12-12 and 8-5, at Koch Arena, Marshall was cognizant of what he calls a “vocal minority” muttering, “What’s wrong with the team? … They lost a conference game (after winning 30 straight against Valley foes).
“Must be no good.”
That’s handy, he agrees, laughing.
“Works right into what we’re talking about,” he said.
His teams probably are at their best, he said, when they play with that certain edge that comes with being overlooked or underestimated — as most of his players once were.
Not that they can’t stand some reminding of that, as Marshall did before their 53-52 victory over Alabama.
“Were any of you guys recruited by Alabama, perchance?” he recalled saying. “Just to throw it out there. Then you go out there and beat ’em, that’s the fun.
“That’s the chip (on the shoulder). The guys that play like that are the best in our program, the guys who want to show the world that, ‘Hey, maybe they missed on me, but I’m doing well here. Watch.’”
Because of the last few seasons, the day may be coming when Marshall faces more of a challenge on that line of inspiration.
Next season, for instance, he expects to have two or three top-100 recruits, depending on what scouting service you listen to.
He likes his newcomers now, and expects bigger things as they mature. But he hasn’t yet reaped the type of players on campus that the last two seasons might have suggested were coming.
“It’s like a ripple effect, but the ripple takes time,” he said. “Like if you’re driving a boat on a glassy lake, that wake that you leave, in order to get to the shore, it takes some time. …
“But maybe it’s eventually now coming.”
In the meantime, of course, there is the season at hand, in which the Shockers replaced what Marshall calls “grown men” such as Cleanthony Early and Chadrack Lufile but retained the nucleus of Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton.
“Are we as big a threat to win the national championship as we were the last two years?” he said. “Maybe not, but who would have said we were in ’13?”
Then came last season, when as part of an exercise led by the Shockers’ character coach, Steve Dickie, Marshall chose “appreciate” as his one-word mantra for the campaign.
Since Dickie is using a different concept this season, Marshall invokes no single word now.
But if he did it might be “honor,” a point he stressed over the weekend when Wichita State celebrated its 1965 Final Four team.
Before the game Saturday against Missouri State, Marshall used that watchword as the last key to the game.
“It’s an honor to play here, it’s an honor to wear this uniform, we honored the (1965) Final Four team … and now we have an opportunity to honor them further by how we perform today while wearing the uniform,” he recalled saying.
The Shockers beat Missouri State 78-35.
And now the task for his team is honoring “by what you do today” those “who came before you in what you accomplish.”
No matter who else does or doesn’t expect much out of them.
“We’re somewhat under the radar this year, relative to last year,” Marshall said, smiling, “and that is absolutely OK.”