In the wake of its Final Four run Wichita State didn't just install a $1.8 million video board and sound system, renovate the locker room and give coach Gregg Marshall a contract extension worth $1.8 million. Over the summer strength coach Kerry Rosenboom, the man responsible for beefing up the team that outmuscled Pitt and Ohio State, introduced the Shockers to yoga. Senior forward Cleanthony Early, who'd had a bad habit of running straight-legged and bending at the waist when fatigued, embraced the discipline with his usual open-mindedness. "I definitely feel like I can get lower and stay lower," says Early, the breakout star of last year's team. "It's going to change my game. It should change everybody's game."
A deeper stance and greater stamina on defense should take Early a long way toward fulfilling Marshall's off-season request that he improve his ballhandling and limit dumb fouls. "I also need him to score a lot—he has the green light," says Marshall. "He could have a monster season."
Marshall also expects big years from sophomore guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, two other keys to the Shockers' NCAA success. But replacing the mental toughness and senior leadership of point guard Malcolm Armstead and center Carl Hall, who combined for 23.2 points per game last year, won't be easy. "I tell my players they have to give us the toughness and mental resolve those kids had," says Marshall. "At least don't make us miss it so much it's painful."
Marshall knows how difficult it is to find players with the "hard-toed shoe" attitude he cherishes, and what he calls Early's New Age thinking" hasn't always meshed with his own old-school mentality. But Early is all-in. Asked what will replace last year's play angry mantra, Early doesn't hesitate: "Play angrier!"
The Shockers still can't get Kansas to come to town, but they did lure Tennessee. Three days after they host the much improved Vols in what is sure to be a sold-out Intrust Bank Arena (capacity 15,000) in downtown Wichita on Dec. 14, they have to face another solid SEC team, Alabama, on the road.
Player To Watch: Fred VanVleet
The highest-ranked recruit to sign with Wichita State to date CK, VanVleet showed flashes of steely poise backing up point guard Malcolm Armstead during the NCAA tournament, particularly in the Shockers' Round of 32 upset of #1 Gonzaga, when he scored seven of his 13 points in the last 90 seconds. Now the team is his to imbue with what he claims is the most competitive nature on a very competitive team. "He's going to be a prime time player," says Marshall. "He's already out there directing traffic, and he just wins. Whatever team he's on, whatever drill it is, his team wins."
Telling Number: 61.2
The Shockers' average scoring defense led the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time since 2008-09.
Q&A with Head Coach Gregg Marshall
SI.com: Aside from improved infrastructure how have things changed for your program?
Marshall: Just the way we're perceived. There's national media interest, NBA interest. There have been more than a handful of NBA teams that have come to our practices, so we're on the map now. Wichita can be a difficult place to get to, but when people are in the area, they go out of their way to come by and check it out.
SI.com: Any games from the Final Four run you've watched a lot or haven't watched at all?
Marshall: I haven't watched Louisville yet. I will watch it with my staff once we get off the road from recruiting. When we have recruits in, I make sure Ohio State and Gonzaga are playing on the nine televisions in my house, so anywhere they go they are watching and hearing the telecasts of those games.
SI.com: How do you build off of last season's success?
Marshall: You have to recruit the style of players who are going to be successful in your program and hopefully have them be a little more talented, perhaps an inch or two taller coming in the door. That's what we're hoping to get with recruiting after the Final Four. There have been some doors open to us that weren't necessarily open in the past. Not that we're necessarily going to start recruiting five star guys, but we're getting guys to say, 'Yeah, I would be interested. I like the way you guys play. I like your style.' But it's not about who you recruit, it's who you get.
SI.com: What program can offer Wichita State a blueprint for staying in the national championship conversation?
Marshall: Since 2006, George Mason, Butler and VCU have all been to the Final Four, and you can see how difficult it is to stay in that conversation. George Mason is no longer in it. Butler, in my opinion, and probably in Brad Stevens's opinion, too, is no longer in it, and that's probably one of the reasons he left for the Celtics. Not that Butler's not relevant, but I think Butler is going to struggle in that new league this year. VCU is in the conversation right now, but they are also the most recent to join it. Being able to maintain it now, that's the challenge.
SI.com: You've said last year's team was not your most talented. What were the most important ingredients to that team and how do you bottle that going forward?
Marshall: I just think it was the leadership and toughness of our seniors, especially Malcolm (Armstead) and Carl (Hall.) They had a mindset that they weren't going to back down to anybody and they thought they were as good as anyone. I thought the previous team could have made a similar run but we had a bad draw. Sometimes it comes down to matchups.
SI.com: What are your biggest concerns about this team?
Marshall: The defense, rebounding and toughness that every one of my teams has had. This team will eventually have it but I don't know if it can equal last year's group.