WICHITA, Kan. — The three letters that no one in Wichita wants to hear come March are N-I-T.
But two weeks ago, Wichita State sat at 2-4, and head coach Gregg Marshall read one writer foolishly declare that his team needed to win the rest of its games to make the NCAA tournament.
Marshall emerged from Wichita State's locker room late Saturday afternoon with his strut back and a message for the rest of the country.
"Redeem and revive," Marshall said after the Shockers put on a clinic in a 67-50 win over then-No. 25 Utah. "Don't bury us after that s--t in Orlando."
That steaming pile of you know what in Orlando was the team ranked 10th in the preseason losing three games in four days at the Advocare Invitational and creating bubble talk in November. Only it wasn't the team that garnered that high ranking; it was a poor-man's variation of it.
This was supposed to be a fairy-tale season, the perfect college basketball tale that began in April.
Marshall signed an extension with Wichita State on a Wednesday after saying no to a lucrative offer from Alabama—reportedly near $4 million per year, per the Associated Press' Dave Skretta (via Yahoo Sports).
He hoped star guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker would stay as well, but he knew when he decided to stay that he needed to be prepared to watch them leave early. His first order of business after signing the extension was to file paperwork to have Baker and VanVleet's draft stock evaluated by the NBA.
The day after Marshall relayed their evaluations, Baker's phone lit up, and VanVleet was on the line with the message that Baker was telepathically hoping he'd receive: VanVleet had decided to stay.
"At the end of it, it felt more like a stressor," he said. "I didn't feel good about it, so I think that told me everything I needed to know."
VanVleet relayed the conversation he'd had with Marshall and the reasons he was staying. Before he could finish, Baker blurted out, "You don't know how much that relieves me."
"When you're going through stuff like that, sometimes you forget to tell people what you're thinking," VanVleet said. "From the outside looking in, I think everybody was expecting both of us to go. But I think internally, I think neither wanted us to go that bad."
Before Baker allowed himself to make his decision, he called his mom and dad, who had him on speaker phone as the three discussed his future. In the middle of the conversation, Baker's stream of consciousness again took over, and he told his parents, "I think I need to come back and enjoy Wichita."
"I felt tied together with Fred," Baker said. "All my years I've been eligible I've played with him. Me and him are kind of tied to the hip. Him coming back was probably 75 percent of the reason I was coming back. He's one of those guys you don't want to be without playing the game."
A month later, Anton Grady visited Wichita. Grady averaged 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds last season at Cleveland State and played on relatively successful teams in Cleveland, but he'd never made an NCAA tournament. He told Baker and VanVleet that he wanted to get to the tourney.
"I said I was coming back for the same reason, except I wanted to go to a Final Four," Baker said.
"I had a message [prepared for Grady]," VanVleet said. "I didn't really need one. He was just like, 'This is where I want to come. You guys don't need to sweet talk me."
"The fact that they've been here and had great success is what got Anton," Marshall said.
That success is a Final Four in Baker's and VanVleet's freshman seasons, a perfect regular season in their sophomore year and a Sweet 16 trip last year.
Combine the best backcourt in the country with an All-Horizon League big man, a former McDonald's All-American in former KU guard Conner Frankamp (who would join at semester) and arguably the most talented recruiting class Marshall had ever signed, and you get...2-4?
Last Friday, Marshall sat in his office and placed values on each player on his roster to illustrate the misfortune that had engulfed his program.
VanVleet and Baker are Nos. 1 and 1A, he said. VanVleet tweaked his left hamstring in an Oct. 29 practice, then pulled it two days later on a fast break in a secret scrimmage against Oklahoma State.
After trying to rush back, he rolled his right ankle in the season opener on Nov. 13 against Charleston Southern. Four days later, he played half-speed at Tulsa, reinjured his hamstring again and finished that game on "half a leg." After that, VanVleet went on the shelf for two-and-a-half weeks, including the entire Advocare Invitational.
Grady, whom Marshall labels No. 3, is out indefinitely. In the second game in Orlando, Grady ran into the arm of Alabama's Dazon Ingram and dropped to the floor in the scariest moment of this college basketball season. Baker overheard Grady telling doctors on the sideline that he couldn't feel his extremities. He left the floor on a stretcher.
(Fortunately, Grady is running again—he spends practice doing exercises on the sideline—and Marshall is hopeful he will play again. But it's still too early for doctors to make the call.)
Nos. 4 through 6, Marshall said, are some combination of senior Evan Wessel, freshman guard Landry Shamet and Frankamp.
Shamet scored 13 points in 27 minutes in Wichita State's season opener. He was the freshman most ready to play. "He's got a Fred/Ron mentality," Marshall said.
Shamet has a stress fracture in the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, which required surgery. Marshall said it is a worse version of the injury that held Baker out of 21 games his freshman season. Shamet hasn't played in the last six games, and if he returns this season—he could opt to take a medical redshirt—it'll be late in the year.
Frankamp spent the first two months of practice showing some of the wizardry and shot-making that helped the 6'1" guard break KU senior Perry Ellis' scoring record in Wichita's City League. But because Frankamp didn't decide to leave Kansas until after practice had started last year, he was forced to sit out the first seven games because of transfer rules.
So out of Wichita State's top six players, four of those guys have missed a combined 21 games.
"It's like Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, had a great fall and now we're trying to put the pieces back together," Marshall said.
VanVleet sat stewing on the bench three weeks ago in Orlando.
The Shockers were blowing a second-half lead to Alabama—just as they'd done the day before against USC—and VanVleet was frustrated. But he didn't know how to express it.
"I'm trying to coach them and do everything I can, but I'm not out there with them," VanVleet said. "Part of me is saying 'shut up, you're not out there. You don't really know what they're going through.' And the other part of me is seeing what they could be doing and getting mad."
Once the coaches left the locker room after the game, VanVleet decided he couldn't stay quiet, and he addressed the team, going down the line and challenging guys individually.
"We had been harping on the same things since June," VanVleet said. "To me, it seemed like guys weren't understanding the magnitude of those plays, and when you don't have that killer instinct and you don't play smart enough to win, you don't win.
"We don't play in the SEC or Big Ten where we have all these top-notch teams that can help our resume. Our pre-conference is pretty important to us, and I just don't think some of the younger guys really understood that at that time."
The next day the Shockers lost by 23 points to Iowa, but two of the players VanVleet had laid into the most, Zach Brown and Shaquille Morris, responded with good games.
Brown is a player WSU coaches have tried to get to be a clone of Tekelle Cotton, the former Shockers guard who was the team's defensive stopper the last four years. After Saturday's game, he said he's embraced his role as the team's "junkyard dog," and here are his numbers since VanVleet's tongue-lashing:
- Before VanVleet rant (5 games): 3.4 PPG and two steals
- After VanVleet rant (4 games): 11.8 PPG and five steals
"He probably didn't like me too much at that time," VanVleet said of Brown. "But it's been paying off since the way he's been playing. It flipped the switch."
Without Grady, Marshall has turned to three bigs (Morris, Rauno Nurger and Bush Wamukota) to basically provide defense, rebounding and hustle.
Over the last week, they faced UNLV's Stephen Zimmerman and Utah's Jakob Poeltl, who are both projected by DraftExpress.com to go in the lottery of the 2016 NBA draft. Zimmerman scored 11 points, but he also had four turnovers. Poeltl came in averaging 21.3 points, and the Shockers limited his touches and held him to 11 points.
Wichita State's coaches have been known to put together some of the best scouting reports in the country—"I don't know how their wives deal with them when all they do is sit at home and watch film, but it helps us win," VanVleet said—and one of VanVleet's complaints when he was out was a lack of attention to detail to those reports.
That was reflected in Wichita State's defense. Wichita State's defensive efficiency in Orlando (110.0) would rank 285th nationally, per kenpom.com.
Against Utah and UNLV, who came to Wichita averaging 83.1 points and 82.1 points, respectively, the Shockers held them both to 50 points. Their defensive efficiency in the two games (82.6) would rank fourth nationally.
Offensively, the Shockers have struggled shooting the ball for most of the year, but that had a lot to do with VanVleet's absence.
"New roles were being made in days instead of months like they usually are," Baker said. "Now that we've got Fred back, things are a lot easier. He's definitely the head of the snake."
VanVleet also has less pressure on him to play heavy minutes with the addition of Frankamp. The former Kansas guard struggled for much of his first two games. He went 0-of-5 in his debut, prompting a meeting with Marshall last Friday. "He was nervous as a cat," Marshall said. "You could tell he was nervous. He wasn't even dribbling the ball with assuredness. He was shaky."
Marshall told Frankamp to play like he's been playing at practice and just "let it go." He missed his first four shots Saturday. But when he finally got a jumper to fall with 54 seconds left in the game, Intrust Bank Arena erupted, and the next possession he crossed over and drained a three.
Even if Frankamp struggles shooting, he will provide value as another ball-handler who can create shots for others, and that's what the Shockers were missing in VanVleet's absence.
The value of VanVleet and Baker in the Utah game was most reflected in the turnover differential—the Shockers forced 19 turnovers and had just three, which led to 25 more shot attempts than the Utes. No matter how well you shoot, you're going to win most games when that happens.
It was a classic Wichita State performance. The Shockers had the Utes scouted so well that they were anticipating their every move, and VanVleet was a technician picking apart the Utah defense.
Afterward, VanVleet was praising his teammates he had broken down weeks before. The Shockers need to win a few more games to get back in the Top 25, but only a few teams in the country are capable of reaching the level the Shockers reached against the Utes.
"We keep guarding the way we're guarding and our offense starts to come around, we'll be dangerous," VanVleet said. "This is more like what me and Ron came back for."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.