WICHITA, Kan. -- The first time Gregg Marshall coached Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, he didn’t get to coach for very long.
Marshall was ejected in the opener before Indiana State ejected the Shockers from the tournament.
“I had a lot of time to myself in the locker room,” Marshall said. “I was trying to do something to kill the time, so I wouldn’t break anything.”
Waiting for the game to end, Marshall flipped through a media guide. And then, he discovered just how disastrous the Valley tournament had been for the Shockers.
Saturday, Wichita State completed its magical run through the regular season, topping Missouri State to move to 31-0 and become the first team in 10 years to go into college basketball’s postseason undefeated.
But if the Shockers are to assure themselves of that coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, they first must accomplish a feat that has escaped them since 1987.
Win the Valley tournament.
“The only thing left to do is win it,” Marshall said.
The goal of winning the Valley tournament has eluded the Shockers, even since the resurgence of the program under Marshall.
Before he arrived for the 2007-08 season, Wichita State had never even reached the Valley tournament championship game since it had moved to St. Louis in 1991.
After a rough exit in Marshall’s inaugural trip, Wichita State finally got to the championship game in 2010 but fell to Northern Iowa. The Shockers returned to the tile game last season but lost to Creighton after missing a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We’ve been to the championship game now,” Marshall said. “But now we need to win it.”
That could also be the difference in securing a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament and slipping to a No. 2.
Saint Joseph’s, the last team to go through the regular season unbeaten, lost in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament, yet was still handed a top seed in 2004.
After Saturday’s win, Marshall avoided politicking for similar treatment.
“They’re not going to ask me. You can ask me, but my opinion doesn’t mean anything,” he said when asked if the Shockers deserved a No. 1 seed regardless of the Valley tournament outcome. “I think so. But I don’t get a vote. I’m not going to be in that room. I’m going to be very excited wherever they place us, wherever they seed us. I think if we play well, we have a chance to play with and beat anybody in the country.”
But this Missouri Valley is not that Atlantic 10, which put three teams other than Saint Joseph’s into the NCAA tournament. At the moment, Wichita State looks like the only Missouri Valley team in line for an at-large bid. As a result, despite being second in the polls, the Shockers’ RPI is just eighth. Their strength of schedule is only 112th.
Which is why conference pride won’t be the only thing on the line in the Valley tournament.
“That’s the bad part about the world we live in," point guard Fred VanVleet said. “We can’t even celebrate this great accomplishment we just had. We’ve just got to keep focusing and look ahead to what’s in front of us.”
Other than history, there’s no reason to believe the Shockers won’t win their first Valley tournament in 27 years.
Wichita State dominated conference play, with only three teams playing the Shockers to within double digits. Missouri State came the closest to pulling the upset, holding a 19-point second-half lead that Wichita State quickly erased before prevailing in overtime. Saturday, the Shockers jumped to an 18-6 lead in a return game against Missouri State by the second media timeout and led by double digits the rest of the game.
Indiana State was the last Missouri Valley team to go through the season undefeated. And that team not only won the Valley tournament but advanced to the national championship game.
These Shockers don’t have a star like the Sycamores did in Larry Bird. But they have the requisite pieces to make another deep run into the tournament a year after advancing to the Final Four.
VanVleet has proven he can control a game with his vigilant ballhandling and pinpoint passing. He ranks among the nation’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Cleanthony Early is a versatile scorer who can post up a defender one possession then knock down a 3-pointer the next. Ron Baker is a steady perimeter scorer. And the bench is deep, with nine players logging at least 12 minutes a game.
“This [NCAA] tournament is wide open,” Marshall said. “There’s probably at least two handfuls of teams that could win the whole thing this year, and I think we’re in that conversation.”
Of course, that path would be made easier with a No. 1 seed. But to secure it, the Shockers might have to go through another, lesser tournament that hasn’t been so kind.
“That’s the challenge that this team has now,” Marshall said. “Anything short of that would be a disappointment.”