LOS ANGELES – UCLA has its next coach. That is, if AD Dan Guerrero is smart and Gregg Marshall is interested.
One problem in this hiring mating dance that may be over before it starts. Almost never is Marshall, the Wichita State coach, interested. His ninth-seeded Shockers are headed to the Elite Eight for the first time in 32 years with a leader who – basketball protocol dictates -- shouldn't be long for Wichita State.
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This was his moment in a 72-58 Sweet 16 win over La Salle in a West Regional semifinal. Right time (NCAA tournament). Right place (at the center of attention in the Staples Center).
Oh, and right around the corner is UCLA.
Thursday's win was Marshall's 29th this season and 138th in six years in Wichita. Ninety-five of those 138 have come in the last three seasons. Marshall didn't come out and say he was staying, but made a compelling case why he has had only two jobs in 15 seasons as a head coach. The other nine years were at Winthrop.
“I'm just not a jumper,” he said. “I've never thought, ‘Gosh, I have to win a national championship to prove myself.' “
In his second year at Winthrop, he interviewed for the Tennessee job. In seven of his nine years there, Marshall said he had a chance to leave. Some of the offers were from BCS schools.
The UCLA opening is the biggest in the country at the moment. Marshall may be the hottest coach not named Brad Stevens or armed with a contract extension into the middle of the century. The scenario was presented to him: His name will be brought up, if it hasn't already.
“I could have made $2 million [per year in the past], it hasn't swayed me,” Marshall said. “I don't have a parachute. If I fail, I go straight to the bottom. I can make $2 million-$3 million but I like to win. If I can win, I'm happy.”
Very happy. Marshall has the school with the third highest-enrollment in Kansas playing for a Final Four berth against the school with the second-biggest athletic budget in the country (Ohio State). A second-place Missouri Valley team that had to scratch this month just to get into the tournament against a superpower.
These kinds of runs are usually cashed in at the promotion pay window.
“It's something that he deals with every year.” Loyalty “is one of his best qualities,” assistant Chris Jans said. “That's in his DNA.”
Who knows how the Shockers will match up on Saturday – Marshall had no clue late Thursday -- but La Salle was basically run out of the building. That was after Wichita State beat a Big East team (Pittsburgh) and top-ranked Gonzaga. Three different teams, three different styles, three different ways to victory.
“It's basketball,” post Cleanthony Early said. “Life is about adjustments. Things can always change. Teams always change.”
This one changed a lot, losing nine starters over the last two seasons, not all of them to graduation. These Shockers lost three of their last five games before the tournament including a puzzling home loss to Evansville.
Now, underestimate these guys at your own risk. One of Marshall's best players is a sixth-year senior, Carl Hall, who has battled fainting spells. Hall made his first six shots and scored 16, after getting off his famed dreadlocks cut off and mailing them home to his mom.
“I really don't know how I got to this whole situation,” said Hall who worked in a factory for two years while doctors figured out his condition.
Doctors have cleared him to play but it's a constant compromise between Hall and Marshall. The coach is sensitive to Hall's condition but if the player doesn't work out properly, he gets out of shape.
“He told me before the season, he didn't want to get me in shape, he wanted me to get myself in shape, Hall said. “He didn't want to be that person.
“I just pray before I get on the court and what happens, happens,” Hall added. “It's scary. It changes your life. I'm taking a chance by touching that court.”
They just celebrated Ron Baker Day this week in the Wichita State redshirt freshman's hometown of Scott City, Kan. Not bad for a redshirt freshman who has averaged almost 11 per game since missing 21 games with an injured foot. At 6-foot-3, 220 Baker can play three positions, including guard where he can post up bigger forwards.
Guard Malcolm Armstead, an Oregon transfer, has this sweet little lefty floater. Sophomore Tekele Cotton is a lock down defender who held Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos to six-of-17 shooting in the Round-of-32 game.
His assignment on Thursday, La Salle guard Ramon Galloway, went four-for-15.
Never mind beating a No. 1 team, the Shockers hadn't played a top-ranked team in 30 years. This is all new territory. The last Wichita State Elite Eight run came in 1981, which in this coach-eat-coach world means it's time for him to leave for greener ($) hardwood.
If this isn't a Bruins town, it's a Bruins moment with Ben Howland being fired. There were shouts from the Staples stands at halftime Thursday for tournament analyst Reggie Miller to take the UCLA job.
“Kareem's has a better chance of getting that,” Miller shouted back.
Kareem is 65 and has been campaigning lately. Marshall, 50, is hidden down in south central Kansas assembling a lineup that hails from eight states and three countries. He is at the sweet spot of his career, a guy who has spent 15 years of his career at two mid-majors. Nine of those years he has been to the tournament. His biggest flaw is that incredible sense of loyalty.
“Our best is going to be hard to beat,” Marshall said. “Right now I'm right in the middle of it. At the same time I'm driven to continue this. I don't know when the end is. I could be 10 or 11 days from now [in the Final Four] or it could be Saturday night.”