KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before we close the door, one more look back on the hoops season that was …
THE EXIT INTERVIEW: WICHITA STATE (30-5, 17-1 Missouri Valley)
What went right: A lot. Another MVC title. A second Sweet 16 run in three years. And, the biggie, a Sweet 16 run that included a resounding victory over Kansas 78-65 in order to reach the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional semis. And that night in Omaha can’t be overstated, if you wear Shocker gold: It was the first time Wichita had met the Jayhawks in men’s basketball since 1993 and the first time the two programs had met in the Big Dance since 1981. When you throw in the bile between Shockers and KU fans in recent years, and some of the playful jabs thrown out by Wichita coach Gregg Marshall, to actually see the two programs settle it on the court was glorious, cathartic, deflating or infuriating, depending on which of the two squads you happen to root for. The hype didn’t disappoint, but the game didn’t exactly match it — the Shockers took the shellshocked and second-seeded Jayhawks out of the contest before the 15-minute mark of the final period and poured it on from there.
Point guard Fred VanVleet (12.7 points per game) and off-guards Ron Baker (15.0 ppg) and Tekele Cotton (9.8 ppg) will go down as one of the best guard trios in school history, and one of the most accomplished in the history of any Division I Kansas school — a legacy that ropes in decades of excellence from KU and Kansas State, too. Baker was named a John Wooden All-American; VanVleet and Baker were finalists for the Lute Olson Award, presented to the national player of the year; and Cotton was a finalist for the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year Award. During the regular season, every loss — there were only three, after all — was followed immediately by a winning streak of at least six games.
What went wrong: Not much. There were days NBA-bound forward Cleanthony Early was missed as a complement to the outstanding backcourt, but not as many as some had feared. If November and December lacked a sexy nonconference notch to stick on the Shockers’ belt — Wichita nearly escaped with a victory at Utah on Dec. 3, falling 69-68 in overtime — March wins over Indiana and Kansas more than made up for it. A 70-54 defeat at Northern Iowa put the brakes on a 27-game MVC regular-season winning streak, one of the most dominant in league history, and made the jaunt to the regular-season title a two-horse race to the very end.
Some of Marshall’s St. Louis blues returned when the Shox were upset by Illinois State 65-62 in the Arch Madness semifinals, a setback that might have contributed to Wichita moving to a lower seed line within Bracketville — a seven — than many pundits had anticipated. Still, as it wound up matching Marshall against Bill Self, most selection committee sins were quickly forgiven. The sky-high hope was another crack at Kentucky in the regional final at Cleveland, perhaps payback for the Wildcats’ stunning takedown of the then-unbeaten Shox in the 2014 Big Dance, but Notre Dame had other ideas. Many, many, many other ideas.
Key pieces expected back: G VanVleet (5.3 apg), G Baker (.394 on treys), F Shaquille Morris (4.7 ppg), F Evan Wessel (4.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg), F Zach Brown (3.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg), F Rashard Kelly (2.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg).
Key pieces out the door (or expected to be): G Cotton (3.9 rpg, 1.4 steals per game), F Darius Carter (11.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg).
Things to work on: Keeping the band together, primarily. The 6-foot-3 Baker is on the radar of NBA scouts and has already completed his undergraduate work. While he isn’t projected as a first-round selection, the Scott City, Kan., icon is expected to test the water and a good spring might get him leaning toward the "jump" category. VanVleet’s pro stock is more of an uncertain quantity, at least to this point, but his superlative performances in the NCAA tourney — 23 points and 4.3 assists per game over three contests — sure as heck didn’t hurt matters.
But the biggest pole holding up that Play Angry revival tent, Marshall himself, is back. That’s the best short-term news of all for Shockers fans who spent the days following the team’s elimination from the Big Dance either praying or getting on hands and knees via social media. Sources say the Shockers’ coach had roughly $4 million per year on the table from Alabama, and it’s reasonable to assume any overtures from Texas wouldn’t have been much lower than around the $3 million mark. Marshall loves Wichita, but the open market means that love won’t come cheap, either: Reports late Wednesday night indicated Wichita brass had agreed to a seven-year deal that almost doubles Marshall’s current take-home kitty of $1.85 million annually (before bonuses). If the coach can rope his point guard and top shooting guard back into the fold for one more ride, go ahead and pencil the Shockers in for another MVC crown and an NCAA berth next winter.
Season grade: A-. A league title and a Sweet 16 appearance would be rightly celebrated in Shockers circles regardless of the context. But to do it with a victory over Kansas, a program so integrated into the state’s consciousness, only makes it sweeter — and for some, even sweeter than Marshall’s remarkable Final Four run of 2013. The win over the Hoosiers that set up the Sunflower Showdown was a hard-fought memento, too, meaning that over the past three NCAA tourneys, the Shockers have eliminated Gonzaga (18 NCAA tourneys as a program), Ohio State (31), Indiana (38) and now KU (44). That’s not just how you beat the big boys. It’s how you become one of them.
Forecast for 2015-16: Sunny, especially if the clouds of roster uncertainty start to clear up. Incoming freshman forward Markis McDuffie is 6-7 with serious upside, and Landry Shamet, a 6-3 guard out of Kansas City, spurned offers from roughly a half-dozen Power Five schools before committing to the Shox. A scoring post threat will have to develop now that Carter is moving on, but Marshall has plenty of in-house candidates from which to choose. Where — and how — ex-Jayhawk Conner Frankamp, a 6-1 combo guard, fits in the rotation once he’s eligible will be interesting to watch. Cotton’s multifaceted contributions, especially on the defensive end, sometimes went underappreciated; who fills those gaps? And for the second straight spring, a top Marshall lieutenant — this time, assistant Steve Forbes — left the program to go head up one of his own (East Tennessee State). Names and faces change, but the profile down I-35 sure doesn’t. As long as Marshall is at the controls, the Shockers will continue to hang with the cool kids in college basketball, the Little Angry Engine That Could. And does.