It's a Monday in October, and Gregg Marshall has pressing concerns.
First, of course, is practice. Today the Shockers are putting in "Monster," their term for a hard double-team in the post. Some of the new guys -- the guys expected to keep Wichita State, fresh off a 35-1 season and 18 months removed from the Final Four, among the nation's elite -- aren't quite getting it.
That's one thing. There's also an appointment with a reporter, and a visit from a former athletics office assistant. Oh, and home by 6 p.m. for dinner with his daughter, Maggie, and her high school volleyball team. Catered Chipotle and Lynn Marshall's homemade chicken queso dip are on the menu. Can't miss that.
But for now, there is the rain in Kansas City.
"I think the tickets are going to be pushed back a game," Brian Holmgren, Wichita State's assistant director of media relations, says. Game 3 of the Royals-Orioles American League Championship Series has just been postponed. Marshall's tickets and transportation -- home plate seats for himself, his family, along with a big group flying in on a private plane -- are suddenly at risk. "So if you've got tickets for Wednesday, they might be for Thursday now."
"That can't be how it works," Marshall says. "I can't go Thursday."
"Well, if you're looking to get rid of them, I'm sure I could find someone to help you out," Holmgren replies, smiling. He means himself.
"That's not going to happen," Marshall said. "You're going to be waving at us behind home plate. Well, you might need a TV screen to see us from where you'll be. But you'll see us."
It takes until midway through team dinner, but Marshall has a guy, and the guy sorts things out. Two nights later, Wichita State's head coach boards the scheduled flight with his family. His son, Kellen, tweets a photo of his ticket: Row A, Seat 1, Kauffman Stadium Crown Club. Later, Kellen tweets: "Parents just got into an elevator with [Royals color announcer] Rex Hudler. #jealous." Kansas City sweeps the Orioles, and clinches the AL pennant, with a thrilling 2-1 win.
"You want to ask me how the offseason has been?" Marshall said. "I'll tell you: It's been too short. It could have gone on forever and that would have been just fine by me.
"I still have to pinch myself," he said.
Which is precisely the problem: You have to pinch yourself. You have to wake up. It can happen in April or October. It always happens. The warm lucid dream of last season's success must come to an end. Another new day begins.
For Wichita State, waking up means integrating eight new players as quickly as possible, replacing almost all of last season's trademark rebounding in one fell swoop. More than that, it means seeing what happens when Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet -- young men who experienced the basketball equivalent of the moon landing last season -- rejoin the mere mortals on Earth.
For Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Arizona, it means waving farewell to brilliant freshmen (or keeping them, in UK's case) while restocking for another title chase. For UConn, it means losing Shabazz Napier to the Miami Heat and still believing you should be the favorite to repeat, even if no one else does. For Wisconsin, it means a once-in-a-decade roster that got a taste -- sweet, then bitter -- of the Final Four. For Creighton, it means life after Doug McDermott. Anno Dougini.
For the sport, it means following up a 2013-14 season that had everything: brilliant NBA prospects; a historic 35-0 start; one of the greatest offensive players ever; and those Huskies, so cool and composed, playing keepaway from the nation's best in March.
That wasn't just a year. That was the year. And this is The Year After.
Where do we possibly go from here?
UConn's Next Chapter
In early June, in a Pentagon auditorium that looked like a cross between a college classroom and a well-heeled community theater, UConn coach Kevin Ollie sat in front of hundreds of military members from all branches, all in various states of official dress. He had been invited, alongside coaches like Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim, to talk to the crowd about leadership. One audience member asked about the specific challenge of blending a multicultural roster.
"It's UConn first, and when you come into that locker room it's a brotherhood," Ollie said, simply enough.
But soon he was digressing: about the importance of a concrete goal, how he believes that good leaders are "dealers of hope," about how he took his players to see AT&T Stadium in January, and told them they would be back.
Two years earlier, Ollie would not have made the guest list. Back then, he was Jim Calhoun's handpicked replacement to take over at UConn, but not athletic director Warde Manuel's. Ollie signed a seven-month contract -- essentially a trial run -- and took over a team suspended from the NCAA tournament for academic infractions.
But Ollie believed. He believed during that challenging first season, as he saw his team coalesce around its exclusion. He believed last spring, even when the Huskies lost at home to SMU in late February, when they lost to Louisville 81-48 on March 8, when they were seeded No. 7.
How far can that belief go? Three of last season's seniors -- Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander -- were the only players in NCAA history to win national titles in their freshman and senior seasons. Napier is a massive loss; no one player was more important to his team. But the Napier who was once a shy, tentative teammate became the Napier of deep step-back 3s and post-title NCAA broadsides. Ryan Boatright will try to step into Napier's shoes this season, with arguably more talent around him.
This summer, Ollie tried something new with Boatright, something a little less all-for-one, and a little more mundane. He made his point guard conduct conference calls.
"He was the moderator," Ollie said. "He was making the calls, and coming up with the game plan of what we were going to talk about. We're putting him in different roles, and asking him and all the other players to self-correct themselves even more.
"And that's just building," Ollie said. "You just gotta keep building. A team is different each and every year. You have to understand that."
The Freshmen Are Gone
Kentucky's freshmen still weren't getting it. It was late January, on the road at LSU, and the Wildcats weren't doing anything right, and John Calipari just couldn't take it anymore.
Andrew Harrison was lost in UK's zone offense, drifting fecklessly in front of the Kentucky bench. So Calipari pushed him into the right position. Never has a gif so accurately summed up a team's issues, or a coach's frustrations.
Two months later, Andrew's brother, Aaron Harrison, would make three buzzer-beaters in eight days to lift Kentucky to the national title game. Ah, freshmen.
Since 2006, when the NBA foisted its age limit upon the college game, each new season has brought with it at least one or two truly gifted players -- players the NBA just can't wait to get at, and vice versa, players good enough to be All-Americans the minute they step on campus.
Even in this world, the 2013-14 season was unprecedented. The top four players in the 2013 class -- Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon -- were hailed as world-destroyers from the start. Kentucky's class, hailed by some as the best ever, featured five top-10 prospects. Joel Embiid ranked No. 6. Kasey Hill played valuable minutes for Florida, the nation's best team, for five months.
Perhaps the most impressive of the 2013 class's accomplishments was its failure to truly disappoint. Wiggins wasn't LeBron James, but he was still a versatile force. Embiid was the best center in the country. Parker was Doug McDermott's most persistent competition for player of the year. Gordon keyed Arizona's freakish pack-line defense. Even Kentucky, which limped through a mediocre regular season, took down Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin en route to the national title game. Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona and Duke won 113 combined games. From the Champions Classic in November to the Final Four in April, the 2013 class defined the campaign season.
The 2014 crop arrives with far less hype. Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor is a common POY candidate, and guard Tyus Jones may already be the best guard in the country. But less is expected from fellow top-five prospects Myles Turner and Cliff Alexander, and Emmanuel Mudiay chose a paying role in China this summer in the face of potential ineligibility.
In an ironic twist, Duke is now the team defined by its freshmen, and the best chance for this class to define the sport for another season -- a unique challenge for a coach whose national title teams have always been the province of veterans.
"It's been a fact of life for us for 15 years," Mike Krzyzewski said. "I mean, we're accustomed to guys going one-and-done, too. That's just the way it is. We're so young, but it's different, and so you don't try to cram. You don't try to fit it in how my '92 team played or '98 or 2004. Those days are not -- those aren't the days."
Kentucky, on the other hand, kept everyone but Randle and Young, and Calipari is hoping a two-team platoon system will accommodate a vast number of McDonald's All-Americans spread across three different classes.
"A friend of mine came in, a coach up in western PA, and watched us practice," Calipari said. "And he said, 'Last year at this time, you were coaching effort and intensity and passion. Now you're just coaching basketball.'
"That's what happens when you have veterans back that get it and understand," Calipari said.
Wisconsin's Old Guard
I am an "off-brand" guy.
That's Frank Kaminsky, the only All-American with a personal blogspot, writing a month after leading the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four. There's nothing off-brand about Kaminsky's game, from his polish in the post to his perimeter range. But when he arrived at Wisconsin, he was a little-known three-star prospect who had only recently discovered his sense of self, let alone the potency of his play.
In a sport obsessed with youth, Kaminsky's development -- from a socially outcast string bean to one of the nation's best, and most vocal, players -- is a testament to the timeless power of college hoops' veterans.
Bo Ryan knows better than most. For 14 years, his success -- Ryan has never missed the NCAA tournament at Wisconsin, and never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten -- has been fueled by constant internal improvement. Few of Wisconsin's recruits arrive with national accolades. Usually, Ryan finds undeveloped players with the skills he values: big men who can pass, guards who can post up. Then he and his staff start molding. The results rarely show up right away, but show up they do, game by game, as freshmen become role players, and role players become stars.
The 2014-15 Badgers might be Ryan's most static roster ever. Fortunately, they're also his best. In addition to Kaminsky, Sam Dekker (a rare top-20 recruit, and now a junior), Nigel Hayes, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson all return from a team that was one 74-73 defeat away from a title-game matchup last season.
It's a team driven by heartbreak; Dekker's Twitter avatar is a photo of his reaction to Wisconsin's loss. Expectations have never been higher.
"You can't possibly think that I woke up this fall thinking 'Oh, wow, I'm going to do something different this year,'" Ryan said. "We're not. The coaching staff isn't."
When you've been at something for long enough, all you can do is be yourself. Or, as Kaminsky wrote:
*I am unique in my own way. I am not afraid to do or say anything. If you didn't notice by my goggle/headband combo in games last year, I don't care if I look like the biggest dork in the world. I embrace who I am. I don't try and hide from it. ... The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.*
Life After Doug McDermott
What happens when those veterans leave? Worse yet, what happens when those departures mark the end of the greatest era in your school's hoops history? What happens when one of them is one of the best players in the history of the sport?
Creighton is about to find out. For the first time in four years, Greg McDermott is no longer coaching his son. As a father, he's proud: Doug McDermott achieved almost everything a player can achieve in his four years at Creighton, where he went from Harrison Barnes' overlooked high school teammate to a legendary scoring force, and now McDermott gets to watch his son play in the NBA. That's pretty cool. As a coach, he's hoping he has enough to prove that Creighton's relevance is sustainable, even in the post-Doug era.
"The first few days without Doug around -- they were different," McDermott said. "Especially, as I joke with Doug, on offense. But it's different every year. You lose players and their personalities off of every team, and you have to figure out how to replace them."
Creighton didn't lose just Doug McDermott. It also waved farewell to stalwart point guard Grant Gibbs, three-point specialist Ethan Wragge and guard Jahenns Manigat. Together, those four players gave birth to the nation's best, most watchable offense for three straight seasons, not to mention a move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big East.
"The most glaring weakness early was even though we have five seniors on this team, none of them have really had to assume a leadership role, because of what that senior class was able to do," Greg McDermott said. "Now is their time to lead our program."
The Big East's preseason poll pegged the Bluejays as the conference's ninth-best team. Opposing recruiters have been happy to point at the elephant in the room: They've never been good without the coach's son on the team. McDermott is determined to make sure the year after doesn't mark the end of an era. But when your highs are that high, the hangover is bound to be punishing.
Wichita State, Perfection And Moving On
It started as a far-fetched, silly idea, but then the wins began to pile up. The turning point came when Wichita State escaped a 17-point halftime deficit at Missouri State. The Bears couldn't miss, and the Shockers needed overtime to steal the thing back. 17-0. They were never truly challenged again.
Milestones were invented. Eighteen-and-0: That one was for Peyton Manning. 23-and-0: Michael Jordan. They weren't playing against opponents so much as the game itself. The rhythm became its own engine. The smooth hum of precision. Squeaky sneakers on the floor. The best pickup run of your life, times a factor of 10, stretched across five glorious months. Can you imagine?
"At some point, it transcended basketball for us," Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet said. "It transcended everything. Being around those guys, knowing what we did together, the memories of that -- it was bigger than basketball."
It changed things. Little daily things. When Ron Baker walks through campus, he's not a Wichita State student on his way to class. He's Ron Baker. Lynn Marshall likes to joke that Evan Wessel -- the Shockers' dump truck of a power forward -- is Baker's personal campus security.
"Lots of kids want to say hi," Baker said. "Sometimes people stare."
Gregg Marshall is luckier than Greg McDermott. He doesn't have to come down from last season, not totally: Baker and Van Vleet, as well as guard Tekele Cotton and forward Darius Carter, are all still around. The Shockers have the best backcourt in the country. They're ranked No. 10 in the ESPN Preseason Power Rankings. They are the obvious pick to win their league; they're a lock to get back to the NCAA tournament.
But they won't win their first 35 games. At some point -- maybe as early as Nov. 18, when they play Memphis -- they will lose. The new frontcourt will need time to catch up. The intense connections forged last season might not be there. The engine won't hum as smoothly. The rush will come in a weaker dose. How do you adjust to life back on Earth?
"You do get frustrated, because you know this is how we play, and they don't," Baker said. "But you also remember that you were like that once, too."
"I don't hold this year's team to last year's expectations," Van Vleet said. "Missouri State was kind of like our loss. I don't want to say we were lucky, but we were kind of lucky in that way. Those moments in the season are going to happen, and ultimately they're good for you."
For Wichita State, The Year After brings a refined understanding of what success truly is: Not wins and losses but the knowledge that you played your absolute best. For the rest of the sport, The Year After brings new questions only the unpredictability of a new college basketball season can answer.
Maybe The Year After will be a harsh snap back to reality. Or maybe it'll be a different kind of dream. Maybe this is The Year, too.
"You don't dream like that," Marshall said. "You just don't. It isn't something you think you need to do to be fulfilled. But I do think everyone who does this should be able to experience it once. Because it's just so fun."