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Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sunflower power: Wichita State not worried after its stellar year

March 14, 2012

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The following is a story from Thursday's Journal-World special section, 'Sunflower Power,' which previews the three Kansas schools in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

A shocking loss to Illinois State in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament did not shake the spirit or confidence of Wichita State Shockers coach Gregg Marshall.

“I don’t think we’re going to do too much fixing. We’re 27-5. We’re going to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Marshall told reporters after WSU’s 65-64 setback in St. Louis.

“I’m not worried. Are you worried? You shouldn’t be. Sleep well tonight.”

He’s been sleeping like a baby during this magical season.

The Shockers do indeed enter the NCAA Tournament with a 27-5 record. Only the 27-4 team of 1953-54 and the 25-3 squad in 1982-83 have had better marks.

WSU went 16-2 during the conference regular-season and won the league by two games over Creighton. Joe Ragland, a 6-foot senior guard from Springfield, Mass., (and North Platte, Neb. Community College) and Garrett Stutz, a 7-foot senior center out of Kansas City, Mo., (North KC High), were named first-team all-league, while Toure’ Murry, a 6-5 senior guard out of Houston, was an honorable-mention pick.

Carl Hall, a 6-8 junior out of Cochran, Ga., was tapped newcomer of the year and Marshall the league’s coach of the year.

Armed with talent, experience and depth, the Shockers, who won last year’s postseason NIT after getting snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee, are seemingly ready for this year’s Big Dance.

“No doubt our guys have a chip on their shoulder. They’d love to get a piece of some of those quote-unquote high-major programs,” Marshall told ESPN.com. “If you don’t bar the door on us, you better be careful.”

Marshall, who is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of coach, bristled when asked by ESPN.com if his team has bigger ambitions than, say, a traditional mid-major team entering the NCAAs.

“I’m not a mid-major/low-major guy,” Marshall said. “When I was at Winthrop, they said we were a mid-major. What was mid about us? We had to rub two nickels together to get a spark. Here, we’re a high-major. We average 10,000 fans a game. I make over a $1 million a year. We fly on private planes. What’s mid-major about us? We just don’t have a BCS football team. Our guys are high major. Joe Ragland could play anywhere in the country. Kentucky offered (leading scorer) Garrett Stutz when Billy Gillispie was the coach. We’ve got some guys that can play.”

What makes the Shockers tick?

Balanced scoring: Six players are scoring 8.3 points per game or more, led by Stutz’ team-leading 13.5 ppg mark. Ragland follows at 13.4, Murry 12.2, Ben Smith 9.9, David Kyles 8.5 and Hall 8.3. The six players represented contribute to the Shockers’ 77.7 ppg mark. In Valley-only games, WSU led the league in scoring at 76.9, scoring margin at plus-14.1. Defensively, WSU allowed just 62.9 ppg off 39.6 percent shooting.

Balanced board-work: Led by Stutz’s 8.0 rebounds a game and backed by Hall’s 4.9 a game and Murry’s 4.8, the majority of rebounding is spread between the same group (between 8.0 and 2.9). WSU has outrebounded foes 38.0-31.3 per game this season.

Balanced playing time: Seven players average between 28.9 minutes and 22.3 minutes a game.

“Last season, they were really disappointed they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament,” Marshall told ESPN, when asked about the veteran players’ motivation in 2011-12. “A couple of times, they had games slip through their fingers and this year, this group was determined not to let that happen.

“These guys are tremendously focused and tough, physically and mentally tough. They have a lot of pride. They know how close they were to the NCAA Tournament last year and I think they’re a little chapped.”

The performance in the NIT helped the team bond and realize its potential this year, Marshall said.

“A few years ago, we were so upset when we lost in the Missouri Valley finals to Northern Iowa and did not get a bid, we went to the NIT and lost in the first round,” he told ESPN.

“Last year, I went to the players and said, ‘Look, if we’re not going to approach this like we want to win it, I’m not accepting the bid. You guys tell me.’ They had a closed-door meeting to decide, and I honestly didn’t know which way it would go. That group re-dedicated themselves, and it carried over into this season.”

The Wichita Eagle’s Bob Lutz, who has been around the program for decades, recently painted a rosy picture of the program.

Lutz wrote ...

Marshall, who just turned 49, has a Midas touch, sure to produce more NCAA tournaments. With such an experienced team, he has said that there are times when he really doesn’t have to do much except stay out of the way.

The Shockers have benefited from the extra games in the NIT at the end of last season and from a tour of Brazil during the summer of 2011 and the two weeks of preparation that preceded that working vacation.

Senior guard Toure’ Murry has played in 136 games as a Shocker and is approaching 4,000 minutes. All of the games and all of the practices show in the Shockers’ precision. This isn’t the greatest collection of basketball players ever assembled, but it’s one of the most well-oiled, humming along like a well-maintained classic car.

That’s why there’s no telling what will happen during the next five weeks. WSU is capable of realizing its wildest dreams, but it has to avoid taking anything for granted.

Wichita State reached its only Final Four in 1965. The Shockers advanced to the Elite Eight in 1981 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2006. Those have been the defining moments for a program that has endured more than its share of hardships.

Marshall, though, has WSU at a historical high spot. His unwillingness to accept anything less than his players’ best effort has made the Shockers one of the most dangerous teams in the country. Wichita State has won 25, 29 and 26 games the past three seasons, but the NCAA Tournament has remained just out of its reach.

This one, though, has left no doubt.

It’s a team eager, not scared. Confident, not boastful. Resilient, not flighty.

In point guard Joe Ragland and center Garrett Stutz, the Shockers have two of the most improved players in the country.

In Murry, they have a glue guy who does all the little things and a fair number of the big ones.

They have all the pieces, everything a team needs for a long March run.

For the first time in a long, long time, the reality is that Wichita State can hold its own against any team in the country. And that includes Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and, yes, Kansas.

No dream is too outlandish, no possibility too far-fetched.

It might all end in disappointment, with a loss no one could have expected. March is a dangerous month for college basketball teams and an exhilarating one for fans.

In case you’re wondering, the Final Four will be played in New Orleans on March 31 and April 2. If you’re a WSU basketball fan, you might want to mark those dates. Just in case.

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