ST. LOUIS -- The Undefeateds opened as a club of 351. By early December they were 17, and by the new year they were six. By mid-February they were two, until Boston College upended Syracuse. Then it was just Wichita State, chasing perfection alone, and chasing it for so improbably long that on a weekend in March, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall could stand before his team at the Scottrade Center and remind them they were on brink of history: "We're gonna do something that only one team has ever done in the history of college basketball" -- go 34-0 -- "and it's never been done before the NCAA tournament." In order to join 1990-91 UNLV as the only other team to reach the dance unblemished since Indiana ran the table in 1975-76, the Shockers needed to survive four days and three games at Arch Madness. This is the story of how they did it.
Thursday, March 6, 4:13 p.m.
It's been 335 days since Wichita State lost a game. It takes approximately 15 minutes of being embedded with the 31-0 Shockers to hear Marshall reference that defeat, which came against Louisville in last year's Final Four in Atlanta. They arrived in St. Louis this morning for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and are practicing at Chaminade College Preparatory School, where former Florida Gators stars David Lee and Bradley Beal played their high-school ball and have their numbers retired on the gym wall. I am watching what looks like a high-functioning practice, in that the Shockers' first-team defense is impeccable with its ballscreen coverages, and its offense is lighting up the second unit like it's done to so many Missouri Valley teams for the past two months. But a single possession where they get casual with the ball results in Marshall calling the action to a halt.
"I'm telling you guys, in some game soon, it's gonna happen," he says, in the kind of pleadingly aggressive manner that many of his statements get delivered. "We're gonna play a team that's as active as we are, as handsy as we are. And what are we gonna do?
"I saw Louisville play last night and had a flashback to the national semifinal, and what they did to us. [The Cardinals forced seven turnovers in the final seven minutes en route to a double-digit comeback.] We've gotta protect the ball. Because someone is going to take it out of our hands."
You do not get to 31-0 by reminiscing about your wins. You get there by fostering a sense of foreboding. By obsessing over minor flaws and fixing them. By telling players -- and I will hear this so many times during film sessions and scouting reports -- that they CAN'T RELAX. That if they do, this run at history might get snatched out of their hands.
Curious Chaminade students are peering down on the workout through balcony windows; earlier, one of them, wearing Shocker-gold sneakers, walked into the gym to greet Marshall. Chaminade junior Tommy Rudawsky is known as the "Wichita State guy" around school, for having adopted the Shockers as his favorite team five years ago, when he decided (as a sixth-grader!) that he wanted to attend their sports management program. In the eighth grade, Rudawsky went to his first Wichita State road game, at Bradley. Per Marshall's road-win tradition back when the crowds were manageable -- as opposed to now, with as many as 7,000 fans descending on St. Louis -- Shockers fans were allowed into the locker room to hear the team's post-victory song:
HEY-o, here we GO!
HEY-o, here we GO!
Did we get that DUB?
Are we moving UP?
HEY-o, here we GO!
"My friends give me a ton of s--- because of your schedule," Rudawsky told Marshall, whose team's worthiness for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament has been #hottake fodder for weeks. Their top wins are at St. Louis and at home versus Tennessee, but a mid-major can only control so much of its scheduling: Most elite majors feel they have little to gain by subjecting themselves to a possible humbling by Wichita State. Rudawksy said this was Marshall's reply, "If they're complaining, tell them to have their favorite team call me, and I'll put them on our schedule."
On the flight to St. Louis, I re-read Curry Kirkpatrick's March 1991 Sports Illustrated story on UNLV as it headed into the NCAAs at 30-0. The Runnin' Rebels played in the mid-majorish Big West Conference, but they were the defending national champs, had four future first round NBA draft picks, and had beaten Arkansas in a No. 1-vs.-2 duel in Fayetteville that February. They were the subject of a different debate. "As the 1991 NCAA tournament begins," Kirkpatrick wrote, "the most beguiling question is not whether UNLV can be beaten, but whether the Rebels could ever have been beaten." The nation has not reached the point -- yet -- of debating where the Shockers rank among the all-time greats. The most beguiling sports-talk question still seems to be whether Wichita is one of the greatest four teams of this season.
Thursday, March 6, 6:32 p.m.
For the coaching staff, Arch Madness is three days of scouting-report roulette. The Nos. 8 and 9 seeds are playing at the Scottrade Center for the right to face No. 1 Wichita State at noon on Friday, and Shockers assistants Chris Jans (who has Evansville) and Greg Heiar (Drake) are in press row, taking notes and waiting to find out who'll have to present a report to the team later in the evening, plus another the following morning, and another in the locker room prior to tipoff. (The other assistant, Steve Forbes, has headed out to recruit.)
Jans, who was Marshall's first assistant hire at Wichita State in 2007, is fine with the fact that Evansville is pulling away. "I like being in control," Jans says, and he seems to have 90 percent of the Aces' play-calls already figured out on a color-coded card. Plus he's developed a successful list of 10 "constants" for defending every action in their offense, which runs through volume-scoring, righty guard D.J. Balentine, whom Jans says "can't function without driving the ball left." His eventual speeches to the team alternate between intense levels of detail about defensive positioning and raw warnings such as, "Evansville's gonna play with their nuts hanging out. They've got nothing to lose."
Given Wichita State's disastrous track record at Arch Madness -- it hasn't won the tourney under Marshall, and its last title was in 1987 -- fear of a first-round upset might be understandable. But Heiar, who's in his third season on the bench, says the current team gives off a different vibe. "This team is looser than past years. Nothing fazes them, and there aren't many immature moments," he says. "When the all-conference awards came out this week, and [sophomore point guard] Fred VanVleet got player of the year, Clee [senior forward Cleanthony Early, the Shockers' leading scorer and a strong candidate] was super excited for him. In the past when some guys didn't get awards they wanted, I think it affected us when we got to St. Louis. This team is just all about winning."
Friday, March 7, 1:05 p.m.
On Friday, the Shockers rout Evansville, 80-58; Balentine scores 31 but the Aces' defense gets overwhelmed by Wichita's attack-minded offense in the second half, and Early and guard Ron Baker finished with 17 points each. "A new streak started today," Marshall says to them afterward in the locker room. "We're 1-0. Unfortunately this streak won't mean a hill of beans unless it gets to three. Three or bust. Now, listen: Are we going to sing or not?"
The players confer and answer collectively: no. They won't sing until Sunday. They break victory-song tradition in the hope of breaking a tradition of Arch Madness failures.
Friday, March 7, 9:34 p.m.
The Cupples Ballroom at the Westin St. Louis is Wichita State's team-meeting headquarters for the weekend, and Heiar is leading their initial breakdown of Saturday's semifinal opponent, No. 4-seeded Missouri State. He starts by saying, "They're going to try to punk you. They made the toughness plays down the stretch today--"
"Hold up, I want to touch on that," Marshall says, before getting out of his chair, walking to the front of the room and positioning himself in front of the 6-foot-8, 219-pound Early, whom the coach begins to question directly. "What were you telling me during the game today? That 'I'm going to get in the weight room this spring?' Well, that doesn't do us any good right now. Get your ass and hips down and check the m----------r out! [Missouri State] punked you the last time we played [on March 1, a 68-45 win]. And they punked the team they played today, Illinois State. Don't tell me about the weight room, because I'm a guy that weighed 145 pounds coming out of high school, and I'd check my guy out. Because it's about will, it's about toughness, it's about heart. That's what this game comes down to. We don't let [guard Austin] Ruder make threes and we f----ing check out, we will beat this team."
After beckoning Heiar to continue, Marshall walks back to his chair and whispers to the man sitting closest to him, "How was that?" John Bramlett nods. He was coaching at a middle school in Rock Hill, S.C., when Marshall took the job at the nearby college, Winthrop, in 1998, and Bramlett began attending Marshall's practices and film sessions for learning purposes. Now a girls varsity coach at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, Bramlett has traveled to Arch Madness to do more studying, and Marshall has granted him all-access, happy to have a +1 on the team-pass list who reminds him of his South Carolina roots.
"Gregg has been a big mentor for me, doing stuff that he doesn't have to, and I've been successful from the stuff I've learned from him," Bramlett tells me later.
"What was he like at the start, at Winthrop?" I ask.
"Oh, he was a lunatic. He had no choice. There was no passion for basketball there, and he had to get players to work. ... He and I were talking last night about how some of his former players have come back and said he's mellowed, but it's hard to believe. Because I know that all this talk about them not playing anybody has really pissed him off."
When Marshall watches film of his team, he appears to be in a state of near-constant suffering. Every Wichita clip in Heiar and Jans' scouting edits is from a victory, yet Marshall's side commentary is a stream of pained dayyyymns and gawwwwds and groans over small mistakes -- anything from a defender taking a bad angle, or an incorrect route against a screen, or a missed box-out. Correcting these in film and practice is how the Shockers get better without needing a clichéd, lesson-teaching loss. Marshall's 17-year-old son, Kellen, who gave up his junior year of high-school basketball so he could fully immerse himself in the Shockers' run, and wants to get into coaching someday, says, "If a casual observer came and watched one of their practices, he'd think they were fighting for a spot on the bubble, not 32-0."
When Marshall does love a defensive play -- and this happens on occasion, the majority of them involving junior stopper Tekele Cotton or Baker blowing up an offense's best-laid plans -- the coach tends to praise it from the opponent's viewpoint. "Kel," he'll say, excitedly, "THEY DON'T LIKE THAT!"
Saturday, March 8
Early listened to yesterday's you-got-punked rant in silence, with his chin resting on his left thumb and forefinger, and it's still in his head when he wakes up on the morning of the Missouri State game -- meaning it had its desired effect. In truth, Early didn't get terribly shown up by the Bears on March 1; he missed a few boxouts, but still had 19 points and six boards, compared to opposing power forward Jarmar Gulley's 15 and five. But Early doesn't like the perception that he got outworked. After his roommate, forward Chadrack Lufile, eggs him on by saying, "Coach threw you down bro," Early vows to prove he's no punk by going all-out right from the tip. ("If you get him motivated like that," Lufile says, "He turns into one of those monsters like you see on Space Jam.")
In the game that afternoon, Early scores 14 of his 20 points in the first half, pausing to hype up the massive Wichita crowd after most of his buckets, while Gulley scores just five and doesn't get a single offensive rebound. In the second half, the Shockers' team defense does the punking: From the 17:30 mark until 8:21 left in the game, they force six turnovers and hold Missouri State scoreless, extending a 37-23 lead to 61-23. They subbed en masse after that, and won the semifinal game 67-42.
It's an incredible display of the Wichita State's defensive might, and Heiar is giddy on the walk back to the locker room, because everything in his scouting report worked. They held Ruder to 0-of-4 from long range; they suffocated Gulley's isolation opportunities; and they won the rebounding battle on both ends of the floor, with OReb/DReb percentages of 27.6/79.4 to the Bears' 20.6/72.4.
As they wait for Marshall to arrive and speak, Cotton, the Valley's defensive player of the year, stands in front of his teammates, laughing and shoving Papa John's pizza into his mouth. "They were on 23 forever," he says between bites. Baker, who was the primary defender on Ruder, says, "There was a point where we had such a run going, and as a defender you didn't want to stop it, so you just kept digging your feet in and guarding."
Asked if he thinks Marshall will find anything to agonize over from the game that elevated them to 33-0, Baker says yes. "He'll still find little things we can get better at. But I know, deep down, he's happy for us."
That night, Marshall takes them to a steak dinner at Mike Shannon's, where they eat filets and watch North Carolina-Duke on a projection screen in a private, basement dining room. A prime discussion topic at Marshall's table -- which includes his wife, Lynn, and Wichita State athletic director Eric Sexton and his wife, Kathy -- is the national perception of the Shockers. Marshall remains miffed that his team could convince Bob Knight, the Hall of Fame coach of the '76 Indiana squad, who paid a visit to campus last month, but not media personalities like CBS' Doug Gottlieb, who's been leading the Wichita's-schedule-is-too-weak-to-warrant-a-No. 1 charge. They joke about how Marshall can publicly respond if they enter the NCAAs unbeaten, and Lynn suggests a line from, of all people, Coco Chanel: "I don't care what you think about me. I don't think about you at all." It has potential to be a press-conference hit, even if it isn't exactly true.
Sunday, March 9
This morning at the Westin, they are thinking plenty about their Arch Madness title-game opponent, No. 2-seeded Indiana State. Jans is back on the scout, and one of the clips he queues up from the Shockers' 65-58 win on Feb. 5 in Terre Haute seems designed to foster a sense of foreboding: They have a four-point lead with 46 seconds left, but give up an offensive rebound, and get lucky when the Sycamores miss the putback attempt. "If that goes in," Jans says, "Holy s---. Who knows. That's what Indiana State's saying right now. They're watching the same thing."
Wichita knows that Jake Odum, Indiana State's crafty senior scoring guard, is liable to go off given that, without a victory here, his career is likely to end in the NIT. Jans stresses avoiding cheap fouls against Odum, who loves to drive and draw contact. Marshall keeps telling the Shockers that Odum said in Saturday's press conference that all he's wanted since Feb. 5 is "another piece" of Wichita: "Let's not give him a piece," Marshall says. "Let's give him the whole thing."
I've been on the lookout for bad omens all weekend, and in the Shockers' final departure for the Scottrade Center, the first one appears: All but two players are late for the 11:20 a.m. bus, having been slowed by packing up their bags for the travel day, and a bus malfunction results in a piercing beeping noise for the entire ride.
They arrive 12 minutes behind schedule, in a tense rush. It's a small but noticeable hiccup for a team that's run on time all tournament and routed both of its opponents with ruthless efficiency. When Wichita's holy s--- moment comes in the second half, with Indiana State cutting the lead to four with 13:06 left, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the one Shockers starter who was on time for the bus is also the guy who rescues them.
VanVleet had boarded nine minutes early, to be exact, holding a bronze trophy of Larry Bird -- the MVC player of the year award -- as his carry-on luggage. "Nobody's takin' this from me," he said, putting it in the seat next to him, and no one is taking his undefeated season away, either: VanVleet answers the Sycamores' rally with a step-back three at 12:51, and goes on to score 18 of their final 36 points to seal an 83-69 victory.
There's zero surprise in the aftermath that VanVleet took over when the Shockers needed him most. As a freshman, he hit the biggest three in their third-round NCAA tournament upset of No. 1-seeded Gonzaga. As a sophomore, he's the one who dispenses key instructions to teammates at halftime; who runs the show on the court while rarely committing turnovers; and who serves as an unofficial big brother to Kellen Marshall, who says that VanVleet is "wise beyond his years." Gregg Marshall hopes that the nation can soon appreciate his 5-foot-11 point guard's greatness. "Some people, when they see Fred the first time, they don't always get it," he says. "But the more you watch, man, the more he grows on you. Because the kid just wins."
All of which makes VanVleet the embodiment of the Shockers as a whole: The more you watch, the more they grow on you. The later it gets, the better they get. All they do is win. And on Sunday, in the locker room after they've cut down nets, they are finally preparing to sing that twice-postponed victory song. Marshall gathers them around, telling them to make it loud enough for everyone back in Wichita, and the 7,000 fans still in St. Louis, to hear. But before they start, he has two questions.
"I ask, are we done?"
The Shockers shake their heads and answer in unison: "Naaahhhh!"
"Are you satisfied?"
Another group shake. Another group naaaahhhh. They are in the history books but hardly finished. Thirty-four-and-oh-and-counting.