Marshall is one game away from exorcising the painful ghosts of St. Louis past for good
ST. LOUIS — The first time Gregg Marshall coached a game at this event, he never got to see the actual end of it. It was a Thursday night tilt, the "play-in" round, six Arch Madnesses ago, and Wichita State’s then-new poobah had been riding the officials the way Roy Rogers used to ride Trigger.
The love affair between "Play Angry" and the Shockers began — really began — six years ago, in this building, on this stage. Marshall spun on one knee in frustration with a second-half call, and found himself escorted from the floor and into one of the hallways inside Scottrade Center by league officials and security.
He did not go quietly.
In fact, Marshall made such a complete racket in the halls that media in the nearby press room raced out from their cubbyhole to see what the devil was going on. The Wichita coach snarled about being picked on because he was new, because his Shockers were 11-20, the 9 seed, going nowhere fast.
Chris Jans smiled a little and winced a little. He remembered it well. Hell, he had a front-row seat.
"I had to coach the team," the Wichita State assistant said with a grin after his No. 2 Shockers disemboweled Missouri State, 67-42, on Saturday to reach the finals of the 2014 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. "It was kind of the perfect ending to our first season.
"We weren’t very good, we had a lot of injuries, concussions. We were in a lot of close ballgames, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. And it was a tough first year, and that was the perfect ending to it."
See, to understand what Sunday means, what cutting down the nets at Scottrade would mean to the Shockers, a team that’s won 33 straight games, danced to a Final Four and appeared on multiple covers of Sports Illustrated the past 13 months, you have to understand the history here, the relationship between the Gateway City and this basketball program.
It’s not good.
"Frustration," Lynn Marshall, Gregg’s wife, told FOXSportsKansasCity.com after Saturday’s game.
"A lot of frustration. Yeah, it was very difficult."
To understand what Sunday means, you have to understand the baggage. Wichita, one of the conference’s marquee, name-brand programs, hasn’t won an MVC tourney title since 1987, and is 29-32, all-time, in this bracket.
In Marshall’s second MVC tourney, 2009, the Shockers were better, but the ending was far, far worse. In the quarterfinal round against Creighton, the perennial kings of Clark Avenue, the Shockers rallied from a 22-point deficit to take a 62-61 lead with nine ticks left on the clock. Creighton, needing a win to stay in the NCAA tourney picture, had lost the ball out of bounds as time was expiring. Officials put 1.9 seconds back on the clock. Jays guard Booker Woodfox took an inbounds pass, fumbled it, went left, and let fly. Swish. Ballgame.
At first glance, the 1.9-second count seemed to start, a little, shall we say, slow. Afterward, Marshall was (again) incensed; Wichita staffers and family members, even more so. They stopped just short of declaring the win as one giant hose job in favor of Creighton, but only just.
"The call at the end (in) the ‘1.9 Game,’ really, it was hard," Lynn Marshall said. "I’ve known Gregg almost 30 years. That was probably the hardest game I’ve ever been through."
Last March, there was no controversy, but a similar sort of heartbreak, after a 68-65 setback to Creighton — there’s that name again — in one of the best championship games in Arch Madness history. Sunday will be the third time in five years the Shox have reached the title game, but Marshall is 0-for-2, having already dropped a 15-point decision to the Sweet 16-bound Northern Iowa Panthers in the 2010 championship.
"I want to win very badly," the coach said. "But I would want to beat you in cards if we dealt them tonight. That’s just the way I’m wired. I want to win this tournament. I want to win when I tee it up in a charity golf tournament this summer."
As Marshall spoke, a white dry-erase board was tucked into the far corner of the Shockers’ locker room. A half-hour after the game, the only writing left was three circles drawn in a row at the top. The first two had giant "Xs" crossed through them.
One circle left.
"It means a lot to us," reserve guard Evan Wessel said. "I think we kind of saw that in our focus so far."
If the Shockers’ dominance at this event was a "7" out of 10 in Friday’s rout of Evansville, on Saturday, things got cranked up to a "9." After the first 12 minutes, the first MVC tourney semifinal turned into a rec league game, only the Shox were the ones with four ringers on the floor.
Forward Cleanthony Early (20 points, five boards) picked up a ball at his shoelaces, raised up and drained a 3-pointer from practically behind the backboard. The bench emptied so quick, 12 different Shockers logged at least five minutes of game time. At one point in the second half, the fourth-seeded Bears, a team that won 20 games, went nine minutes and nine seconds without a field goal, turning a 37-23 game into a 57-23 train-wreck. Which is a pretty good recipe for getting your butt handed to you on a plate.
"Oh, (Gregg) wants to win it bad," Jans would say later. "He doesn’t hide it.
"We’ve talked about it, him and I, and we’ve talked to our team. And we never look ahead. But I can tell you, for the first time I can remember being here with Coach, he talked about getting to Sunday – even on Friday, when he normally would never look ahead like that. He’s like, ‘It’s championship or bust. We’re supposed to win this thing.’"
To understand what Sunday means, you have to understand the angst. Marshall has won two MVC regular-season titles, taken a non-traditional power to a Final Four and won an NIT. It’s one hell of a bucket list. But he’s never cut down the nets at Scottrade, never danced under the confetti here, never held up a sign here.
This is about completing the circuit. This is about taking care of business. This is about exorcising the ghosts of St. Louis.
"There’s special meaning to winning this tournament because chances are, we could be back here in about 11 days," Marshall said. "So we may as well get used to it."
If the bracketologists are on the money, the Shockers will return to this same building — with the same goals — March 21-23 to kick off their run through Bracketville, however long that run lasts this time.
Best get comfortable. Best make it feel like home.
"I know," Jans said, smiling again. "And we’ve thought about it, trust me. The worst-case scenario is to come down here and lose and come back here and have to hear it again about how we’ve never won a championship in this building, and in this city."
One circle left.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.