Is Garrett Stutz tough enough?
The Wichita State senior is tall (7-feet) and skilled, an old-school post player with range out to the three-point line who led Wichita State in scoring (13.5 ppg) and rebounding (8 rpg). But whether the Shockers can be a Final Four team, as some have suggested, might rest on whether Stutz can find some grit to go with his grace.
"In our final game [of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament] Illinois State's philosophy was to beat him up so it took him out of his game," says Shockers coach Gregg Marshall. "Give them credit. It worked. He didn't handle it well. He got his first technical and he played  ineffective minutes [with 6 points] and we lost."
It is a blueprint that any team facing the fifth-seeded Shockers -- beginning with 12th-seeded VCU on Thursday in Portland -- might follow, the key to defeating a team that, for stretches this season, has appeared unbeatable. Wichita State defeated No. 20 UNLV by 19 in December and won by 21 at No. 19 Creighton in February. Prior to losing to Illinois State, the Shockers, who were the MVC regular season champions, had won 17 of 18, the only loss coming in triple overtime at Drake.
Stutz is one of six players who average at least eights points a game, and Wichita State goes eight deep. The Shockers are among the top 25 teams in defensive efficiency and scoring, which means they can beat you with their defense or their offense.
"We know that we have a chance to defeat any team in the country," says Marshall. "That is because we are a team. We have stars, players like Garrett, but they play in a team concept."
The first time Marshall saw Stutz play was at an AAU Tournament in Tulsa when Stutz was in high school. The team scheduled to play Stutz's squad was late, so Stutz "was taking three-pointers, screwing around really, and still he was making shot after shot," Marshall says. The coach would learn that Stutz was a great athlete in a 7-foot frame. He played baseball and golf in high school and can still effortlessly rip a 300-yard drive down the fairway.
Stutz, who is from Kansas City, Mo., spent the Friday night before Selection Sunday at church, and Marshall says he hopes his own son, who is in ninth grade, becomes as kind and noble a young man. All that is great, but the NCAA tournament is about great players dealing with adversity, and for Stutz that is certain to include another test of his toughness.
"I can't get frustrated like I did, that is the first thing," Stutz says. "When the officials are going to let that sort of gamesmanship go on, I can't let it affect my mindset. It can't affect how I play my role in the offense."
Practices last week became a sort of boot camp for Stutz, with Marshall attempting to simulate the Illinois State experience and train Stutz to react differently to extreme contact. Before workouts, Stutz lifted weights with his legs to the point that they felt like rubber, then at practice the philosophy was, "There is no such thing as a foul when it came to me," Stutz says.
Teammates hacked him, held him, pushed and grabbed, whatever they wanted. "Coaching kept saying that just because I am a senior and it is late in the season doesn't mean I can't improve," Stutz says.
Player and coach believe the work has made a difference, that Stutz has the toughness to match his talent. If true, it wouldn't be a shock to see Wichita State in New Orleans.