March Madness has turned into kind of a belated Christmas season for fans of Wichita state basketball. And fans can’t help wondering what’s under the tree this year.
To get an idea, SPLURGE! visited Charles Koch Arena, home of the Shockers, last month on a day of practices and film sessions for the men’s and women’s teams. The Missouri Valley Conference and NCAA tournaments were still weeks away, but they had to be on the minds of men’s coach Gregg Marshall and women’s coach Jody Adams. Marshall and Adams, two of the most successful coaches in WSU history, want nothing more than to deliver a big shiny present to their players, fans and school this month.
Gregg Marshall walked into a media briefing room with a deadpan look and wisecrack for one of the sportswriters who regularly covers his team. “You got your money’s worth,” Marshall said. “Huh?” the sportswriter asked.
“You got your money’s worth with that haircut,” Marshall said.
In other words, if Marshall was worried about his team, it wasn’t showing.
Then again, you might ask why he’d worry. At that point, the Shockers were 20-3, their only losses coming to quality opponents.
True, that last loss had been a double-digit thumping to Northern Iowa, then ranked No. 18 in the country. And the Shockers followed that up with a much-closer-than-expected win over a depleted Bradley team.
Marshall preferred to look at the big picture.
“A lot of folks are worried about blowouts and style points,” he said. “if you’d asked at the beginning of the year would I take 20-3, i would have said absolutely.”
But Marshall, national coach of the year last year, has created huge expectations for his program. Two years ago, the Shockers made it to the NCAA Final Four and had eventual champions Louisville on the ropes in the semifinal before losing. They managed to top that in 2014, at least by some respects, by going 35-0 before losing in a thriller to Kentucky in the NCAA’s third round.
The Shockers haven’t been as dominant this year as last, obviously. But they beat a number of quality teams early (New Mexico State, Memphis, Tulsa, Saint Louis and Seton Hall) and have spent the season ranked in the top 20. Their stars—Fred VanFleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton—have regularly provided highlights in the form of brilliant floor leadership, sharp shooting and monster dunks. The starting lineup is filled out by the hard-nosed Evan Wessel and Darius Carter, who’s contributed big offensive numbers when not in foul trouble.
As the year progressed, Marshall seemed to try to find playing time for more and more players off the bench, giving them game experience and trying to figure out who can help the team in the postseason. reserves Ria’n Holland, Shaquille Morris, Rashard Kelly, Tevin Glass and Corey Henderson Jr. have all had their moments.
At that February media briefing, Marshall was unwilling to single out an aspect of his team that needed work before the postseason arrived.
“We try to improve in every facet of the game—defense, offense, shooting percentage, rebounding,” he said.
When asked if his players seemed confident going forward, he said, I think so. We had a wonderful practice yesterday.”
The first Shocker team to reach the NCAA Final Four—the 1964-65 team—was in town that weekend for a reunion, and Marshall welcomed the former players’ attendance at shoot-arounds and other events involving the current team. (The Shockers went on to throttle Missouri State that night and win their next three as well, going to 24-3 on the season.)
And just how, finally, did Marshall evaluate that current team?
“We haven’t played our best. We haven’t played our worst. Our best is pretty and our worst is,” Marshall paused, looking for the right words, “still pretty good.”
Think “good” is good enough for Jody Adams? Consider the case of Alex Harden, her star guard-forward and one of the best female players in school history. One week into February, Harden was average 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, all team highs. She also led the Shockers in steals and minutes played.
Adams, when asked if Harden was having the senior season her coach hoped for, answered simply: “Not yet.” she pointed to a whiteboard in her office where Harden’s goals for the year were written: 23 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals per game. Oh yeah, and MVC Player of the Year and All-American.
It’s that refusal to settle that has allowed Adams to take the women’s program where it had never been before—the NCAA tournament—for the last two years. but her team still hasn’t won a game in the tournament.
This year, she seemed to go out of her way to prepare them to do just that, and perhaps more. she scheduled a slew of games against teams from the toughest conferences in the country—and won four of them, against Creighton (Big East), Ohio State (Big Ten), Clemson (ACC) and Kansas State (Big 12). The one loss, a three-point squeaker at Tennessee (SEC), might have said more about her team’s potential than the wins. In early February, Tennessee was ranked No. 1.
“This team knows how good they are, but it’s got to play the game right,” Adams said. “We cannot get away from the details.”
That’s what happened in the Shockers’ first conference loss, another three-point setback on the road at Drake. Overall, the Shockers were 17-4 at that point, having also lost non-conference games to eastern Washington and Florida Gulf Coast. The women improved to 20-4 by mid-February.
The reality is that despite the Shockers’ non-conference success, they will probably only get into the NCAA tournament by winning the conference tournament in st. Charles, Missouri, which carries an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
Adams isn’t shy about her team’s chances. Michaela Dapprich, Alie Decker, Jamillah bonner and Kelsey Jacobs have all taken turns with harden as leading scorers in games. “I think we’ve got the best starting five in our league,” she said. If her team has a weakness, Adams said, it’s the players “tendency to push the ‘Superman button’” and try to win a game themselves instead of focusing on team ball. but they’ve had plenty of success when it mattered in the conference, winning the last two MVC regular season and conference tournament championships.
So is this the year Adams gets the program another first, as in its first NCAA tournament win? A realist, she says much depends on match-ups. Two years ago, the Shockers were whipped badly by Texas A&M. Last year, WSU played Penn State closely before losing. The other biggest factor is probably Harden.
Adams’ star is analytical and cerebral, fine traits in a doctor (as she plans to eventually be). Adams wants to see more passion, something she herself has clearly never lacked.
“My challenge to her is I want to see more leadership.”