Wichita State's 70-66 upset of Ohio State in the West Regional final in Los Angeles was an hour in the books when Carl Hall, the Shockers' begoggled 6'8" senior forward, stopped midstride in a Staples Center corridor and realized he was missing something. "I need a hat!" he yelled as he pivoted toward the court. "Me too!" cried 6'8" junior forward Cleanthony Early as he hobbled after Hall on a sprained left ankle, with a yellow-and-black shoe on his right foot, Hall's shower slipper on his left and a bag of ice dangling from his left hand. Senior guard Malcolm Armstead was already wearing one of the black hats that had CHAMPIONS next to a Final Four Atlanta logo, but he trailed after them out of habit, bouncing the game ball he hadn't let out of his sight since the final buzzer. "We're like brothers, so we do everything together," Armstead, the West's Most Outstanding Player, said between dribbles. "Even when we really don't know where we're going."
At least Armstead and his brothers are clear about their next destination. After their bold beatdown of the Big Ten tournament champs, the ninth-seeded Shockers, the surprise survivors of a ravaged West region that saw its one, three, four, five and seven seeds all get booted in the first weekend, are headed, as the hat says, to Atlanta. Their Final Four berth, the school's first since 1965, isn't 11-seed-George-Mason-in-2006 mind-blowing, nor is it First-Four-to-Final-Four-VCU-in-2011 absurd. But it's close. The Shockers, who had lost five seniors, four starters and 75% of their scoring from last year's team, had been picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference—and that was before they lost four starters to injuries, one for the season and three for multiple games. After dropping six games in the second half of the season, including the MVC tournament final to Creighton, they had sweated out even getting an NCAA bid. A deep March run was so unlikely that coach Gregg Marshall had made plans to skip the Final Four—for just the second time in his 28-year coaching career—and take his wife, Lynn, and 16-year-old son, Kellen, to Kansas City to watch his 13-year-old daughter, Maggie, play in a volleyball tournament. Yet there was Marshall atop a ladder on the Staples Center court last Saturday holding four fingers, then two, then one, out to a sea of delirious yellow-clad fans. They caught on, chanting, "Four! Two! One!"
Could the Shockers be the last team standing on Monday night? They won't be the odds-on favorite, let alone the sentimental favorite, in their Saturday match-up with top-seeded Louisville, which overcame guard Kevin Ware's ghastly leg injury to beat Duke for the Midwest Regional berth. But Wichita State's unheralded underdogs have thrived in the face of what had been national indifference. Inspired by Marshall's tournament-long directive to "play angry," the Shockers dismissed No. 13 seed LaSalle and its speedy four-guard offense last Thursday 72--58. Then they manhandled the bigger Buckeyes from the jump, frustrating Aaron Craft's forays into the paint with multiple defenders, including Hall, who had six blocks, and holding star forward DeShaun Thomas to 0 of 5 shooting in the first five minutes and his team to 24.2% in the first half. Wichita State extended a 13-point halftime lead to 20 before the Buckeyes made a late charge to whittle the margin to three with 2:48 to go. But even in the face of such a seismic momentum shift, the Shockers stayed together. Fred Van Vleet, a freshman point guard who had ably spelled the foul-plagued Armstead, lofted a shot that bounced three times on the rim before dropping to stretch the lead to six with a minute to go. After leaping in the air to chest bump his teammates when the buzzer sounded, Early, one of four Shockers in double figures, found Marshall in the throng and wrapped him in a lingering bear hug.
A few minutes later Early stood at midcourt as his teammates snipped the net, happy but not nearly as euphoric as he had been the previous Saturday after a 76-70 conquest of No. 1 seed Gonzaga. He had sat in the midst of the delirium of the locker room in Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena imitating Dick Vitale: "The Shockers are going to shock the nation, Baby!"
A week later the giddiness had been replaced by a steely confidence and an unmistakable swagger. Having knocked off both the one and two seeds in the West, Early and his teammates knew they could beat anybody. Suddenly a prize that hadn't been on any of his teammates' minds a few weeks ago was within reach.
The day before the Ohio State game, Marshall had sat in a side room at Staples discussing his team's unexpected success. "It does surprise me," he said. "These guys obviously have more talent than anyone gave them credit for. It has been so gratifying because they've found ways to be successful and they've overcome so much. Maybe that's why my wife says they are like me."
During his playing career at Cave Springs High in Roanoke, Va., and at D-III Randolph-Macon, Marshall, who says he was so skinny he'd vanish from view if he turned to the side, got teeth knocked out and his nose broken two times each. "That was just the way I played," he says. "I was a little skinny guy figuring out a way to win."
A self-described "career grinder" who has never coached at a BCS school, even as an assistant, Marshall now commands a $1 million-plus salary and has access to charter flights for games and private planes for recruiting. But he is still, at heart, an underdog. And those are the guys he coaches: late bloomers, walk-ons, overlooked prospects and well-traveled transfers—guys with something to prove. One-and-done? Not in Wichita.
Hall, who turned 24 on Friday, is playing for his third school in his sixth year of eligibility, thanks to an NCAA medical hardship waiver. After a few fainting spells in his freshman year at Middle Georgia College, he was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, a heart condition that produces irregular beats. When doctors recommended he end his playing career, Hall painted lightbulbs at a factory in Cochran, Ga., on the graveyard shift for $12 an hour to pay for school. With the help of medication, he was able to play for a year at Northwest Florida State before joining the Shockers last season.
Early faced hardships, too: After his older brother, Jamel Glover, drowned in 2010, he attended a D-III junior college near his home in Middletown, N.Y., so he could be close to his mom. He then passed up opportunities with San Diego State, Baylor, Washington State and Alabama to play in Wichita because "I felt like I could really grow and be an impact player here," he says. A transfer from Oregon, Armstead was so determined to play in Marshall's up-tempo system that he worked at a Cheney, Kans., car dealership six days a week during the summer to help pay for school while he sat out last season. "I had just one year," he says. "I wanted it to be great."
Armstead was the only starter to survive the rash of injuries that hit in December. After guard Evan Wessel (broken pinkie, out for the year); Hall (broken thumb, missed seven games); guard Ron Baker (stress fracture, 21 games); and Ehimen Orukpe (sprained right ankle, three games) all went down, Marshall had to plumb the depths of his roster to field a team. The Shockers faltered down the stretch after a 19--2 start, but once they made the field of 68, Marshall made sure they knew they belonged. "I want my teams to play with complete confidence," he said on the eve of the regional final. "Last night before the game I said don't let anyone in this room walk out of it expecting anything other than success. You belong. You're here. You might as well win these games."
They have won them so decisively that when the C word came up at the end of Marshall's press conference last Saturday, he swatted it away as forcefully as Hall had rejected Thomas's layups. "I don't think we're Cinderella at all," he said. "If you get to this point, you can win the whole thing. I think Cinderella just found one glass slipper. I don't think she found four."
In his search around the arena, Hall couldn't find even one hat. But he wouldn't dwell on it. There were bigger prizes to chase.