Monday September 1st, 2014

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – I caught up with Gregg Marshall in early July at the Nike EYBL Peach Jam, which is one of the premier events on the summer recruiting circuit. Given where we were, it was natural for me to ask Marshall about how Wichita State’s recent success has affected his recruiting strategy. When a coach from the Missouri Valley Conference follows up a Final Four appearance by leading his team to the sport’s first undefeated season in 23 years, you’d think he could go after just about any prospect he wants.

Think again. “I don’t know that we’re on any five-star guys,” he said. “At least I don’t think so.”

I was surprised and a little skeptical to hear this answer. So I brought up two of the consensus top players in the high school class of 2015. I can’t tell you their names because NCAA rules prohibit a coach from being quoted on recruits who haven’t signed with a school, but trust me, anyone who even minimally follows college basketball recruiting knows who they are.

But Gregg Marshall didn’t. I’m not saying he didn’t know a whole lot about them or isn’t trying to recruit them. He literally did not know who they are.

Seeing my surprise, Marshall shrugged and chuckled. “We’re not a powerhouse,” he said. “Ninety percent of the kids, when they’re being recruited they get caught up in ‘level.’ Level of league is just as important as level of program. I’m not out here to see who will have the best recruiting class, Duke or Kentucky. I gotta get my guys and develop them.”

His guys tend to be Division I transfers, juco transfers, and diamonds in the rough. Marshall’s job is to find them, sign them, and teach them how to play his way. The formula has been devastatingly effective, not just at Wichita State but during his previous stint at Winthrop, where he led the Eagles to a remarkable seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine years. There are a lot of coaches at so-called powerhouse schools who would love to have that kind of record.

There are also a lot of coaches who would love to have Marshall’s roster for the 2014-15 season. Last year, the Shockers went 35-1 and had four players who started all 36 games. Three of them will return: 6-foot-3 junior Ron Baker, 5-11 junior point guard Fred VanVleet and 6-2 senior guard Tekele Cotton, who was a member of my All-Glue team last season. Senior forward Darius Carter, who as a reserve last season was the team’s fifth-leading scorer and the third-leading rebounder, seems a sure bet to crack the starting lineup. Carter’s ascension should make it easier to replace the fourth starter, Cleanthony Early, the 6-8 senior forward who was selected by the New York Knicks in the second round of the NBA draft, as well as three additional seniors who were part-time starters or saw significant minutes off the bench.

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Who will be the fifth man to fill out the lineup? “That’s the $64,000 question,” Marshall replied. “We’ve got a lot of new guys.” The leading candidate is Rashard Kelly, a 6-7 forward from Washington, D.C. Other possibilities include 6-7 redshirt freshman Shaq Morris, 6-5 redshirt junior Evan Wessel, 6-8 juco transfer Tevin Glass and 7-foot junior center Tom “Bush” Wamukota, a native of Kenya who played junior college ball in Texas. Those are not household names, of course, but neither was Early before he came to Wichita. This is the program where no-names come to make a name for themselves.

It’s a good bet, then, that the Shockers will once again be highly ranked heading into the 2014-15 season. VanVleet and Baker will form one of the top backcourts in the country. Both spent their summers competing in top showcases – including the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas, where Baker found himself guarding the King himself during one of the college workouts. Marshall is long past being concerned about the pressure of high expectations. “At this point, our guys are used to having a target on their backs,” he said. “Hopefully we can deal with any situation.”

Marshall will always carry fond memories of the historic 2013-14 season, even though it ended in painful fashion with a 78-76 loss to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA tournament. “We played a great game and it came down to one possession,” he said. “It would have been great to win a national championship, but we had a special year. Not too many people get to go through that.”

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The larger (and oft-repeated) question is how long will he stay at Wichita State? Last spring, Marshall was again on the short list of candidates to fill every major coaching vacancy, but he did not bother to hear anybody out. He wouldn’t come out and say it to me during our conversation, but I sensed that next time around, he might be more inclined to listen. He is going to lose two more senior starters from this team, and there’s a good chance Baker will turn pro. In addition, Marshall’s son is beginning his senior year of high school. It would have been tough to move his family last spring; but next year, Marshall won’t have that concern. Plus, there weren’t many top jobs available. If something a little more sexy than Missouri or Wake Forest comes open, Marshall will have to give it some thought.

Still, if another school is going to pry Marshall away from Wichita, it is going to have to pay him a lot of money and provide him with a lot of security. He currently has both of those thanks to a seven-year contract that rolls over annually and pays him a salary of about $2 million. “I’m very pleased with my administration and what they’ve done for me and my program,” he said. “If and when I ever leave, it will be a different set of circumstances than we had this offseason.”

Is that day coming sooner, later or never? Who knows? In the meantime, no one will be shocked to see Wichita State contend for the national championship. Marshall may not have any big names, but he does have his guys, and he knows just what to do with them.

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