COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- In the aftermath of a tough, three-point win over homestanding Air Force, the mood in the Spartan visitors' dressing room beneath Clune Arena was buoyant. The small, rectangular quarters were filled not only with the triumphant Wichita State Shockers, but also with a healthy handful of their fans who had made the trip out West. After head coach Gregg Marshall finished glad-handing and proudly noting that the Shockers were now 21-3 in their last 24 road games, he handed center stage over to senior forward Carl Hall, who became the soloist in a celebratory group sing-song.
"Did we get that dub?"
"Are we movin' up?"
Then all the players joined together, bellowing a line that underscores both Wichita State's surprise 8-0 start and mounting evidence that this could be a strong season in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"Ohhhhhh, here we go!"
Ever since Doug McDermott confirmed his return to Omaha for his junior season, Creighton was the nearly universal pick to win the league. Despite a surprise home loss to Boise State last week, the Bluejays have provided plenty of evidence that they are worthy of that perch. It seems a bit misguided, though, for anyone to believe at this point that Creighton will walk to the league title. That's a credit to what's been happening elsewhere around the conference in the first month of play.
Illinois State, which received the two first-place votes Creighton didn't nab in the Valley preseason poll, was last seen in Louisville, scaring the Cardinals to death. They have been manhandling lesser foes with one of the nation's most efficient 2-point shooting attacks, thanks in large part to guard Tyler Brown and NBA prospect big man Jackie Carmichael. Preseason third-place choice Northern Iowa was part of the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field and also nearly toppled the Cardinals, as well as Memphis, in the Bahamas. Despite going 0-3 there, the Panthers remain a top-75 team in Ken Pomeroy's early-season rankings.
However, it's the Shockers, picked fourth in that poll, who are providing the biggest shock so far. After losing their top five scorers from last season's Valley regular-season champs, this was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding campaign. Instead, it appears Marshall and his staff have merely reloaded, with a win at VCU and a victory over Iowa to go with the one at Air Force as proof of intent. The return of the Shockers, to go with some solid rebuilding in the lower half of the conference, is what will make the Valley a really interesting proposition this season.
"I think this year has the look and feel of the mid-2000s," said longtime conference commissioner Doug Elgin of a period highlighted by a four-bid season in 2005-06. "... We may not be quite as balanced at the top, but I think we're just as deep with good teams."
Despite the turnover in personnel, the Shockers appear to be rounding into the kind of resolute, defensive team that Marshall favors. Since he replaced the departed Mark Turgeon before the 2007-08 season, the Shockers' D has improved each season, finishing last season ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com.
This year's Shockers don't have the size of 7-footer Garrett Stutz to lean on, but they seem to be a more flexible, athletic team with a still-solid frontcourt capable of scoring enough to win. With the postgame singalong as some evidence, they also have come together as a group quicker than expected.
"We say 'brothers' on three every day, man. There's 14 of them," said Hall in the corridor outside the still-noisy locker room. "I think [the camaraderie is] even better this year. So many new faces, you gotta try to gel together."
Marshall has been a master at cobbling cohesive rosters together, leaning heavily on assistants with junior college head coaching experience to mine the two-year player market for stopgap talent. This roster is no exception, with leading scorers Hall (in his second season with the Shockers) and Cleanthony Early both products of that pipeline.
Senior point guard Malcolm Armstead also is a transfer, but from Oregon, where he played two seasons for the Ducks. Throw in two other jucos and two freshmen, and the rotation has six brand new faces in it. It's all part of this Marshall Plan.
"We generally have four- and five-year players," Marshall said. "We have some time to prepare for [personnel losses] and our assistant coaches do a hell of a job restocking the pond. Now we've been able to win some games that maybe we couldn't have won had we not found those guys."
The Shockers' depth may come in handy over what's expected to be an 18-game Valley grind. With coaches like Geno Ford (Bradley) and Barry Hinson (Southern Illinois) elevating teams that were lagging at the bottom of the league, there look to be very few easy nights anywhere in the league. Along with the Ivy League, the Valley is one of only two conferences that hasn't changed membership since 1995. The familiarity (and the double round-robin) also breeds considerable contempt. It's great to bank wins early, and the Shockers have the schedule with which to do that. They get all three other de facto contenders at home first in league play, so come the end of January, the Valley standings could contain a interesting yellow twist, and a no-longer inexperienced team could be staring down a title run.
"[Marshall's] kids are new, but they're veteran players," Elgin said. "He's brilliant at not only recruiting but putting component parts together. We feel Wichita State will contend. They're still unbeaten and they're going to be a load."