HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Flanked by a sea of fans after his team’s best win of the 2017-18 season, the Pied Piper of Wichita State turned and motioned for the crowd to follow him in a victory walk to the visitor’s locker room.
“Everyone in yellow is with me,” Gregg Marshall told a perplexed security guard who wondered aloud if checking credentials was worth his time following No. 19 Wichita State’s 76-72 win at No. 5 Cincinnati.
Yes, Wichita State’s win over Cincinnati, a projected 2-seed in the first slate of seeds announced by the selection committee last weekend, will pad a profile topped by wins over Marquette, Baylor and Houston. Yes, the victory just changed the American Athletic Conference title race, with the Bearcats holding a one-game lead over Wichita State and Houston two weeks before a second meeting with the Shockers.
But the win over Cincinnati on Sunday at BB&T Arena in Highland Heights, Kentucky -- the temporary home for the Bearcats while their home floor undergoes a renovation -- squashed any concerns that Wichita State’s glorious run under Marshall would cease with the move to a new conference with more quality opponents.
Wichita State dominated the Missouri Valley Conference for years before the school announced its move to the AAC. Early stumbles in its inaugural season generated questions about its status in the new league, doubts the five-loss Shockers heard.
“It’s been like that the last couple weeks,” Marshall said after the key road win in front of a sold-out arena. “We lose a couple games, and ‘Oh, we knew they weren’t as good as we thought. Everyone is overrating them.’ I can start naming them. You want me to name them? I can. They come from every industry. Bottom line is we can control what we can control, and that’s having tremendous passion and energy and toughness today, and it was enough to end the nation’s longest home-court win streak against an unbelievable team, unbelievable coach and unbelievable program.”
Marshall’s coaching philosophy depends on doubters. It really doesn’t work without them.
Players on the Final Four team in 2013 promoted their lack of scholarship offers and praise from recruiting services in high school. Today, Marshall speaks of Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet and New York Knicks guard Ron Baker as evidence of the hard work and development his program inspires. But he’ll first tell you how many folks didn’t believe in them before he signed the pair.
The Shockers -- a program with a Final Four, Sweet 16, undefeated regular season, NCAA tournament win over Kansas and No. 1 seed all in the past five years -- still compete with a “you don’t believe in us” vibe.
“We have guys that play with a little chip on their shoulder,” Marshall said. “I coach with a little chip on my shoulder.”
The rise of Wichita State basketball came with a series of doubts. The Shockers reached the Final Four. Yeah, anyone can get hot in the tournament. The Shockers beat the Jayhawks in the 2015 NCAA tournament. Well, maybe they got lucky. The Shockers recorded a perfect regular season. That's not that hard in the MVC.
When the school announced the move to the AAC last year, the Shockers were praised by voters who picked them to finish second behind Cincinnati in the conference race. But could they manufacture the same dominance against better competition? That’s the question they had to answer.
“I think the MVC is underrated,” said Landry Shamet, who finished with 19 points and five assists Sunday. “But you’re not playing Cincinnati with 10,000 people in the stands.”
The AAC certainly presented a more challenging slate for Marshall’s squad. Shake Milton torched the Shockers and led SMU to a win at Koch Arena. Houston bullied the Shockers on the road after that loss. Temple outlasted them in overtime, completing a rare 2-3 stretch for Wichita State.
Now, however, they’re a game behind Cincinnati for first place with another matchup ahead, this time at home.
Cincinnati had not lost at home -- although it isn't playing on the usual home floor, Fifth Third Arena -- in 39 games.
After Wichita State pulled ahead with runs in both halves on Sunday, the Bearcats relied on the energy of the crowd and cut their deficit to two with 14 seconds to play.
From afar, VanVleet watched and issued a warning.
It's a long year I wish y'all stop writing off the shockers @GoShockers will just have just as good of a chance as anybody in March— Fred VanVleet (@FredVanVleet) February 18, 2018
Although they downplayed this game all season, Wichita State players understood the implications of beating a top-five team on the road in their first conference clash. It was more proof that Wichita State can play with anyone, anywhere ... in any league.
“I mean, everybody was talking about it,” Shamet said. “Everybody was saying, ‘OK, it’s gonna be Wichita State and Cincinnati.’ We knew that. That was obviously a game, as a competitor, you have that circled. You can’t look too far ahead. But this one was one that I’d been ready to play for a while.”