LOS ANGELES -- When Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall walked into the Staples Center locker room after his team's 72-58 crushing of 13-seed La Salle, he was surprised at what he found. The Shockers had advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1981, yet no one was celebrating. "We were pretty quiet," freshman Fred Van Vleet said. "I think he appreciated our focus."
There was much for Marshall to appreciate about the Shockers' performance, which decisively extinguished the unexpectedly extended season of La Salle, a team that had made it from the First Four to the Sweet 16 with a four-guard lineup that was tough, quick and deadly from the perimeter. Against the Shockers, however, the Explorers couldn't get enough of anything to fall, be it three-pointers, acrobatic lay-ins or Southwest Philly floaters. In the first half, the Shockers held the Explorers to 26.7-percent shooting while going on runs that, at one point in the second half, gave them a 22-point lead. Overall, they outrebounded undersized La Salle 47-29. "They wore us out," La Salle guard Tyrone Garland said. "They have eleven guys."
Every game this tournament, someone different has emerged from the Shockers' deep roster to take a turn in front of postgame cameras. Tonight, it was sixth-year senior Carl Hall, a 6-foot-8 forward from Georgia. Before the game started, the coaching staff reminded Hall that La Salle wasn't going to offer the kind of post challenge he had encountered against Pitt and Gonzaga. "In this game, he would be the biggest, baddest guy out there," assistant coach Chris Jans said. "And he sure looked like it."
In the first half, Hall scored 14 of his 16 points, making seven of his eight shots. "After playing Pitt and Gonzaga, I don't think it gets any more physical than that," Hall said. "It was kind of an easy night post-wise."
Leading a team to the Elite Eight is not something Hall could have imagined just a few years ago. Suffering from heart arrhythmia as a freshman at Middle Georgia College, he missed all but three games of that season and sat out the next. Unable to play ball, he worked the graveyard shift in the paint booth of a light factory for $12 an hour to pay for school while going to classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. After two years there, he transferred to play the 2010-11 season at Northwest Florida State Community College.
Marshall offered him a scholarship before the 2011-12 season despite two concerns. Hall's five-year eligibility clock was running, so unless Wichita State was successful in petitioning the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility for a medical hardship, he'd only have one season in Wichita. But that wasn't the only potential deterrent. Four years earlier, soon after Marshall had taken over the Wichita State job, he had experienced what he described as "the worst experience of my life:" Just 30 minutes after getting a handshake commitment from New Hampshire recruit Guy Alang-Ntang, Marshall had watched the player die of a heart attack while playing a pickup game.
The NCAA came through with a waiver for this year, and Hall said he hasn't had a fainting episode since he passed out playing basketball at Northwest Florida State two-and-a-half years ago. Still the risk is always there. "It's scary," Hall said. "I'm taking a chance when I touch that court. It makes it easier when you're winning."
Though he wasn't in as good a shape as he is now, Hall shot 57 percent from the floor and was named Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year last season. With five seniors and 75 percent of last year's scoring departed, Hall was expected to be major contributor on this year's team. But by mid-December, he was out of the lineup, for seven games, with a thumb injury. Fellow starters Evan Wessel and Baker went out with injuries about the same time.
"It was one of the most challenging coaching years of my 15 years as a head coach," Marshall said last week. "Not just because of what happened during the season, but the fact that we were replacing five seniors and 75 percent of our scoring. It's challenging enough with nine new faces, but then to lose three starters when you had started so well."
But during a Dec. 30 against Northern Iowa, he watched the Shockers, minus three starters, build a 30-point lead, and he started to believe. "Maybe these guys can do it, maybe they can fill in," Marshall said. "And they did. It was really cool."
Hall returned in early January and has contributed a steady 12.6 points and 6.9 rebounds to a team that keeps finding different heroes every night. "It's like I'm in a dream with this whole Elite Eight situation," Hall said. "I still can't believe it, but anything is possible when you play defense and you're peaking at the right time."