Inside Wichita State's Pursuit of Perfection

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Inside Wichita State's Pursuit of Perfection
Peter Aiken/USA Today

WICHITA, Kan. — Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall says he doesn't talk about a perfect season, because that's what he is supposed to say.

But the Shockers—currently 23-0—are well aware of what they're doing and that everyone is paying attention.

Three weeks ago, Wichita State trailed by 18 to Missouri State at halftime, and Marshall started his halftime speech with a reminder to his guys of the magnitude of the moment.

"That score is going across that ticker," Marshall told his players. "And the nation is now paying attention."

The Shockers, who faced an even more improbable deficit of 19 with less than 12 minutes remaining, rallied to win in overtime.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The nation was already paying attention to the Shockers—ranked fourth in this week's AP poll and second in the coaches poll—because of last year's Final Four run.

But the attention has shifted from "can the Shockers remain relevant?" to "can they go undefeated?"

It has been 10 years since a team finished with a perfect regular season. Saint Joseph's went 27-0 in 2003-04 and didn't lose until the Atlantic 10 tournament.

The Shockers have company—Syracuse is also undefeated—but few are talking about a perfect season for Jim Boeheim's club. The Orange still have road games against No. 25 Pittsburgh, No. 11 Duke and No. 20 Virginia.

Wichita State's biggest remaining test in the regular season comes this week with road games against Indiana State and Northern Iowa, the other two best teams in the Missouri Valley. Neither of those teams has sniffed the Top 25, and their chances of pulling off the upset, according to kenpom.com, are 27 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

The chances of a perfect regular season for the Shockers, kenpom.com now estimates, are at 38.9 percent.

During his halftime speech at Missouri State, Marshall told his team: "The lights are bright, and they have never been brighter."

As the calendar turns into February and approaches March, the same could be said as his team pursues perfection.

Can the Shockers handle it? 

***

From the outside, it seems like the pressure of a perfect season would be almost unbearable. UNLV in 1991 was the last team to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten. That team was so dominant that its closest game all year was a seven-point win at Arkansas. 

If there was a team that had the weapons to be the first since Indiana in 1976 to win the national championship with a perfect record, it was those Runnin' Rebels. But the pressure finally got to them in the Final Four when they lost to Duke. 

Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

"As much as you want to say in coaching terms that it's one game at a time and one day at a time, everywhere those Wichita State kids go...they're being asked that question," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli told Bleacher Report. "It builds. It certainly builds." 

The key is to manipulate the mind. 

Marshall has become convinced that at some point in every game in which his team has trailed, the Shockers go from hunted to hunter.

"The pressure is on them," Marshall tells his guys. "They can feel it." 

The Shockers have trailed in the second half of eight games, and the formula for a comeback is pretty standard. They go to a full-court press, and the opponent's confidence turns into doubt. 

"It works in your favor," Marshall said. "Why not press? Because if they're not going to try to score, a couple times (Missouri State) did and they were a little tight.

"That basket was as big as a kiddie pool in the first half, and in the second half, it was as big as a thimble. It's a different mindset. So much of it is confidence and mojo and how you feel."

Evansville coach Marty Simmons can relate.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

This past Saturday, Simmons brought his Purple Aces to Wichita and his team played perfect for almost 12 minutes. Evansville made 12 of its first 14 shots and led 29-14.

"That X on our back, I don't think people understand regardless if a team is really little or you don't really know them, if you get their best, it's college basketball and anything can happen," Wichita State senior Cleanthony Early said.

Marshall starts most games without a gambler's mentality. His game plan against Evansville had been to fall back off the point guards, who were not threats to score, in an effort to clog the paint.

"I abhor giving up easy baskets," Marshall said. "So we try to just guard you and try to make you force tough, contested jump shots, and if that doesn't work, then obviously we have to extend pressure."

Marshall's original game plan allowed the Purple Aces to get in a rhythm and get comfortable, so then he had his team turn up the pressure and press.

Six turnovers later, the Shockers led before halftime had even arrived.

As another pass sailed out of bounds, Simmons turned to his assistants and yelled: "We've got guys out there who don't know what the (heck) they're doing!"

Only Simmons said another four-letter word.

That's what the Shockers will do to you. They make you uncomfortable, they make you lose your mind and they make you want to curse.

***

Harry How/Getty Images

Every Shocker can trace back their belief and their ability to come back from any deficit against any team to last March. 

On March 23, 2013, to be specific. That was the night Wichita State captured the nation's attention, knocking off No. 1 Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet 16.

The Shockers trailed by five to Gonzaga at the under-eight-minute timeout that night, and Marshall noticed a defeated nature to his players' gait as they walked toward the huddle.

The coach posed a question to his team: "If I would have said to you on October 15 when we started practice, you're down five against the No. 1 team in the country with seven and change to play for the right to go to the Sweet 16, would you have taken it?"

One by one, Marshall made eye contact with each player on the floor, asking the question: "Would you have taken it?"

"It's not a dream anymore. It became reality when he said that," Tekele Cotton said. "I just got chills in my body. Let's go out here and win the game. Why can't we win the game? There's no rule that says we can't win the game right now."

"In a game with all the intensity and adrenaline that's rushing, for him to have that abstract thought was mind-blowing for us," point guard Fred VanVleet said. "We just looked around at each other and thought about it for a second, and it was kind of a collective 'Hell yeah, let's go.'" 

"They all said they would," Marshall said. "There was a different cadence to their step when they came back out on the floor. And Ron Baker, I'm not kidding you, he didn't say anything, but the look that he gave me as a freshman who had missed 20-something games...he looked at me and it was as if 'I got ya. I got this.'"

Over the next nine possessions, the Shockers scored 23 points, and Baker, once a walk-on, buried two threes, releasing each one without hesitation. 

"Ohhhh, it was quick," Marshall said. "I got this. Watch. It was quickest release you could imagine." 

The dagger came from VanVleet, also a freshman. He had the ball in his hands with Wichita State ahead by two and less than two minutes left and the shot clock winding down.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

VanVleet and Marshall can recite the details like it happened seconds ago.

VanVleet looked to the sideline to see if his coach was going to call a timeout. When Marshall didn't, VanVleet measured up Gonzaga's David Stockton, dribbled toward the three-point line and fumbled the ball to his left toward the Wichita State bench. He reached out to grab the ball, looked at the shot clock...four...three...and stepped into a three-pointer from about 24 feet out.

"And as it's going through the net, he literally turns over to me and winks as he holds his follow-through," Marshall said. "And I'm going, jeez, these kids have cojones and the bravado that they show is incredible, and it's exactly what I want.

"I want players to play with supreme confidence, because I try to coach with confidence. You have to have confidence, especially when you're the little guy. You're the underdog. You have to know that you can do it."

***

At practice on Friday, Wichita State was running offense without any defense when Marshall noticed a small slip from perfection in the way his post players were outletting the ball. He walked onto the floor to demonstrate.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Keep the ball high. Don't let it dip. Pivot toward your outlet man.

Not doing so had happened "at least two times" in recent games.

"We've gotten sloppy," Marshall told his team.

Hours earlier, Marshall was talking about his team's toughness and chemistry.

"They just have a confidence, a swagger, if you will, that they're going to find a way," he said. "They're going to get it done."

There's a belief in Wichita, behind all the one-game-at-a-time talk, that they will be the first since UNLV to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated.

If they get through this week, it will be sold as a disappointment if they don't do it. The Shockers will become, as if they haven't already, the Gonzaga of this season. 

Will Wichita State finish the regular season undefeated?

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"We're almost in their shoes that they were last year," VanVleet said. "Hopefully that doesn't happen. Hopefully there's not another Wichita State out there." 

Do not fool VanVleet's hope for fear. 

"This is something that we're not afraid of," Marshall said. "I don't want to say we're used to it, but by and large, I think these guys embrace it."

Yes, the Shockers want to go undefeated. They believe they can go undefeated. And they might just have the cojones to pull it off. 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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