Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall made a decision on Sunday against Ohio State that was one of those "Why didn't more coaches do that?" kind of tactical moves.
Marshall had his players go under every ball screen set for Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, daring Craft to shoot.
Craft is a 30-percent three-point shooter. He had not made two threes in a game since Dec. 22. He has a herky-jerky release that has so many moving parts he's like a golfer with the yips. Craft, for good reason, had not attempted more than three threes since Jan. 19.
So what happened against the Shockers?
They baited him into taking seven threes (he made two). He also missed all five of his two-point attempts, three of which were jumpers. The Shockers begged him to shoot. He did, and it worked out beautifully.
This was just one subtle move of many that likely filled Wichita State's game plan, and it's not the only reason Marshall will be coaching in his first Final Four on Saturday. But it is part of the equation. The Shockers are more than just a nice story.
Marshall is a really good basketball coach at a really good program.
His record says as much. He is 333-152 in 15 seasons. He took Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years at the school. He won the NIT two years ago at Wichita State. Last season, he won the Missouri Valley and had the more accomplished team pre-NCAA tournament than this one. He had to replace his five leading scorers, and now he's in the Final Four.
That's what gets lost in all this "mid-major" talk that will surround Wichita State this week, similar to what Butler and Brad Stevens faced during back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2011.
Many will question what Marshall's next move will be. Will he turn this run into a better job—possibly at Minnesota? He's been successful for several years now; why has he not moved on already?
Marshall said last week in Los Angeles, via CBSSports.com:
I'm already making seven figures. You can eat a lot of steak and hamburger and pizza for what we're making at Wichita State... I live on the golf course. We have a beautiful backyard. My wife has four dogs. She gardens. We fly around on private planes to Napa and back to South Carolina. We have a good life, man.
At a good program.
They're Already Big Time
Read that quote again.
Wichita State is already legit. The only thing the Shockers are missing is the BCS conference, and that hasn't stopped Butler, VCU and now WSU from getting to the Final Four.
Marshall, like Stevens, took over a program that had already been good. Current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was at Wichita State before Marshall and he took the program to the Sweet 16 in 2006. The Shockers made four NCAA tournaments during the 1980s and a Final Four in 1965.
Koch Arena, where Wichita State plays, seats 10,506. Legendary coach Ralph Miller got his start at Wichita State. Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr, two players who had long NBA careers, played on the same Wichita State team.
Wichita State does not have a football team, and most of the money is funneled to the basketball program. The expectations are not out of whack, and Marshall has guaranteed job security.
Marshall has had "better" offers. He turned down North Carolina State since coming to Wichita and countless other jobs that we probably do not know about. He was also pretty content at Winthrop.
In fact, Marshall was offered the College of Charleston job in 2006, which would have been a step up. He had been an assistant for eight years at Charleston. He accepted the job, only to change his mind a day later.
A year after that he agreed to come to Wichita State.
Like Stevens and Shaka Smart, he's content where he is for good reason. And unlike those coaches, he's already made his move.
The Mid-Major Blueprint
The strategies Stevens employed during back-to-back Final Four trips—the last-second plays, the game plans built around advanced stats—made him one of the game's most respected coaches.
Marshall is a respected coach, yet no one is throwing around words like "genius" this week, a word that follows Stevens regularly. But moves like forcing Craft to shoot the three are the types of equalizers that Stevens made when Butler was navigating its way through two brackets.
Focusing on the coaches as we tend to do in college basketball does take some of the credit away from the players. And both coaches have had really good players.
The old mid-major formula was to recruit a group of kids, coach them up for four years and hope they develop and win their senior year. Then get a new crop and try to pull it off again.
The Wichita States and Butlers of college basketball have always had the advantage of not having to worry about losing players to the pros early, but this is different from that old formula. They may miss out on the top prospects, but it's not like they're recruiting at the bottom of the barrel either. And they're getting players every year.
Remember, Marshall replaced his starting lineup from last season and he's in the Final Four.
Much like a Rick Pitino or a Bill Self, Marshall combines the ability to consistently get good players with a winning formula.
His teams have improved every season at Wichita State on the defensive end, according to KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency measure. His teams, similar to Stevens', are always solid on the defensive glass—his final Winthrop team and the six at WSU have all ranked in the top 15 in defensive rebounding percentage. The Shockers won by hitting five straight threes late against Gonzaga, but they typically play inside-out and take good shots.
So Marshall gets good players and puts them in the right situation.
This sounds pretty easy, huh?
Imagine What's Next
The fact that Stevens was able to get back to the Final Four in 2011 is what wowed us about Butler and the coach.
It's not easy to get back. Marshall may never get back. Consider all the success that Gonzaga has had since its 1999 Elite Eight run—and the school has not made it past the Sweet 16 since.
The Zags have become a national name, however.
They also have no trouble scheduling BCS schools each season on their own turf. West Virginia, Illinois and Baylor came to Spokane this past year. Kansas State played Gonzaga in Seattle.
That has allowed the Zags to make 15 straight NCAA tournaments, and four of those years they made it as an at-large.
Butler turned its success into an invite to the Atlantic 10 and now the new Big East.
Wichita State could be on the verge of taking its brand to a similar level.
The Shockers were already one of the best programs in the Missouri Valley, a consistently good conference. They will now be the undisputed class of the league with Creighton leaving for the new Big East.
Roy Williams likes to say that he's no better a coach now than he was before winning a national title. Yes, but it cannot hurt him when he's trying to get players.
Marshall was already a proven coach, but now recruits will know his name when he walks in the door.
Wichita State was already a proven program, but now it'll be one that will likely play more games on national TV.
The Final Four did not justify Butler or VCU as successes. It just helped them get to the next level.
Expect Wichita State to be a mainstay in the NCAA tournament.
Expect Marshall's star to rise. And expect it to happen in Wichita.
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