One phone call changed it all for Final Four-bound Wichita State

LOS ANGELES -- In the middle of the wildest scene Wichita has ever caused in this city -- the list of such commotions, of course, is short -- Gregg Marshall briefly stepped away from the madness on the Staples Center floor on Saturday to lean into Doug Elgin's ear.

A lot of you don't know Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall from Peter Marshall or Doug Elgin from a kick in the backside, but the message was the thing after Wichita State took down Ohio State 70-66 to capture the West regional title.

“Thanks,” Marshall said to the Missouri Valley commissioner, “for the phone call.”

“Love you, man,” Elgin replied.

This relationship between coach and commissioner started 12 years ago in Dayton during that initial NCAA play-in game. Then at Winthrop, Marshall impressed Elgin, at the time an NCAA basketball committee member, with the way he carried himself and how his team mimicked his intensity.

So when Mark Turgeon in 2007 left Wichita State and the MVC (as good coaches usually do), Elgin got on the phone and did the best recruiting job of his career.

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“You really ought to take a look at this job,” Elgin told Marshall. “They sell out for the season.”

It might have been the best case of tampering ever, but what the hell? At the time, Marshall had just turned down two life-changing offers: One, from Winthrop for 10 years at $400,000 a season.

“They were going to put my name on the floor,” Marshall said, “but they weren't going to let me leave. It was iron clad. I had to stay all 10 years. It was indentured servitude. I said, ‘That's BS I've been here nine years, been to seven NCAA tournaments.'”

A second offer came shortly thereafter. South Florida called with a $750,000 annual contract to coach in the Big East. Once again, Marshall turned it down.

“I sat there in my bedroom [thinking], ‘Did I just turn down three quarters of a million dollars to coach in the Big East?'” he said. “'I think I did.'”

Elgin called with news of the Wichita State job two weeks later. You might gather by this point that Marshall is not easily moved. In fact, when the call came six years ago, he was playing golf. The coach at Winthrop then put off the Valley commissioner for a second to hit a shot.

“Said, ‘Hold on, Doug,'" Marshall remembered. “I put my phone up on a tee marker.”

It took a special job and a special place under special circumstances to pry Marshall away from Winthrop after nine seasons. Sure, Wichita State was a better job with better pay, but that has never mattered to Marshall.

“I'm just not a jumper,” he said following Thursday's semifinal win over La Salle.

But he is a champion -- of the West Region, at least, of Kansas' largest city, certainly -- perhaps of college basketball by a week from Monday. Of the Valley absolutely, which hasn't had a team in the Final Four since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.

And this year's leader of the mid-major revolution in the bracket.

That's where a commissioner who has fought the good fight for his league for 25 years on the job, deserved a snip of the net after the Shockers shocked the nation. In the same month that Elgin lost league cornerstone Creighton to the Big East, the Valley laid a new foundation.

“I wasn't sure I'd ever see this,” Elgin said. “I saw Butler go twice. I saw the Colonial Athletic Association and Horizon League each have two trips [to the Final Four with George Mason and VCU]. This takes a lot of luck. These guys earned it the hard way. They toughed it out. It takes an awful lot. You can't have a bad night.

“This is much more rewarding because of the hurdles you've got to overcome in a league like ours.”

Take a friggin' bow, then, Doug Elgin. If you don't make that call six years ago, probably none of this happens.

That means the Shockers don't beat Pittsburgh from the Big East or top-ranked Gonzaga last weekend. That means they don't eviscerate La Salle in a Sweet 16 game. A team that shot 33.8 percent from the arc during the season doesn't suddenly turn into 3-point sharpshooters.

Then they don't face up to the big, bad Buckeyes from the bigger, badder Big Ten and sock Ohio State right in the jaw. OK, that was after sixth-year senior Carl Hall took a shot to his jaw while guarding Buckeyes star Deshaun Thomas. It followed Cleanthony Early's collapse in the lane that looked like the opening of deer season -- and Anthony was a 10-point buck. Turned out it was nothing more than a rolled ankle.

It came after the Shockers let a 20-point second-half lead get whittled to three. In the end, it just … came. The Marshall plan. He is not the first coach to rely on rebounding and defense, but he was the best in L.A. Wichita State might have wilted a bit in the end, but their supreme, confident, more energetic start was the difference.

Besides, it's human nature. A team like Ohio State from the nation's best conference has to, at some point, read “Wichita State” on the jerseys and think, “We've got this.”

“I can't speak for them, but a lot of high majors do that [overlook Wichita State],” guard Malcolm Armstead said.

The Shockers didn't submit because of a guy like defensive stopper Tekele Cotton, who --with 90 seconds and the game in the balance -- outjumped Ohio State's 6-8 LaQuinton Ross for a rebound. That was a few seconds after Cotton nailed a 3-pointer to extend the lead to six.

“Someone had to step up and make a big play for us,” said assistant Chris Jans. “Obviously, it was slipping away from us a little bit.”

The Shockers shocked because Armstead, an Oregon transfer, came to Wichita State despite having to work at a car dealership in Cheney, Kan., to pay his way for a year. Fellow guard Ron Baker missed 21 games with a broken foot, then became a local legend in his hometown of Scott City, Kan.

Baker took it to heart when former Shocker star Antoine Carr spoke to the team in January. Carr's message: Play angry. It has to be disconcerting for an opponent when even the cute, pert, mannered Wichita State cheerleaders are screaming the words down on the baseline.

“That's kind of been our motto during the tournament,” Baker said. “Play physical. Play tough.”

That mentality, too, plays into the Valley mentality. It was under Elgin's leadership in the last 10 or so years that the conference at various times earned the rep as the so-called best of the mid-majors. Elgin was always driving them to become better. Twelve years ago, he implemented a non-conference scheduling structure to help the league's RPI.

“Sometimes it didn't make a difference,” Elgin said, “but it did from an attitude standpoint.”

Coaches sometimes pushed back, but the league was helped by playing a Mountain West Challenge and participating in various Bracketbuster games. This year, Wichita State might have been an ultimate winner of the scheduling philosophy. In the third game of the season, the Shockers won at VCU.

Still, this Final Four team was swept by Evansville and lost three of its last five before the tournament.

Elgin thought this Final Four thing was going to be cake when he led Virginia and Ralph Sampson to the promised land in 1981. “Led” might be too strong a word. Elgin was a mere sports information director.

Like those around him in the no-doubt celebratory Valley office in St. Louis, he has a sense for history this week.

-- This was for Kansas -- the state and the Big 12 monsters that dominate it. Top-seeded Kansas and fourth-seeded Kansas State were sitting at home watching the (really) little brother get to Atlanta.

Rock Chalk Shocks?

This was for the Holy Trinity Plus One in Wichita State history -- Xavier McDaniel, Dave Stallworth, Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston. They are largely regarded as the best Shockers in history.

This is for 1965. Let's hope this Final Four trek ends better than the last one for the program. In '65, UCLA and Princeton beat the Shockers by a combined 55 points. Some guy named Bill Bradley scored 58 in the consolation game.

This is for conference realignment. The Valley has defined it in its 106-year history. The league claims 32 current or former members in basketball. That list includes Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa and others. Those 32 members account for eight percent of schools currently in Division I.

Elgin is actively looking for a Creighton replacement at the same time that he is basking in that history. Marshall, too, took stock on Saturday. The coach met his wife 24 springs ago in Kansas City at the NAIA tournament. At the time, Marshall was a College of Charleston assistant making $19,000 scouting an opponent, when what he called “the Swedish ski team” walked into Kemper Arena.

It was actually the Western Washington women's team -- in town for the women's NAIA tournament -- coming to watch the men. Lynn Munday was among the skiers, er, players up in the stands. She and Gregg married five years later.

As for the team that Marshall was supposed to be scouting that day? It was Georgia College, coached by one Bill Hodges. The same Bill Hodges who led Bird and Indiana State in ‘79. The last Valley team to get this far.

From Indiana State to Georgia College to Wichita State. Even Doug Elgin didn't know that.

 
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