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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
No more avoiding attention for Shockers

By Eamonn Brennan

The year of the Shockers is upon us.

In 2011-12, Gregg Marshall coached the most tragically underappreciated team of his career. It was also the best -- emphasis on "was."

The Shockers' starting lineup that season was a coach’s dream, comprised of four seniors and one junior. Just two freshmen saw playing time that season; everyone else was a junior or senior. Garrett Stutz was a commanding 7-foot center. Guard Joe Ragland was arguably the best all-around shooter in the country. Creighton's Doug McDermott was a star being born, but by the end of the season the Shockers seemed vastly ahead of the Bluejays where it mattered -- rebounding, defense, philosophical cohesion -- and demonstrated as much in an 89-68 win in Omaha. If any Shockers team was built to make a Final Four run, that was it.

What happened next is almost funny in retrospect: The selection committee relegated Ragland and Co. to a lowly No. 5 seed. They drew No. 12 VCU, lost 62-59 and went home on the first day of the tournament.

Cleanthony Early
Cleanthony Early leads a powerful Wichita State team that could be undefeated for quite a while.

It wasn't until a year later with a completely revamped and far less dominant regular-season team -- a No. 9-seeded team at that -- that Marshall's team made the deep tournament run that put the Shockers on the map. You saw them, you remember: upending Gonzaga in a blaze of outside shooting glory; outworking Ohio State; taking Louisville to the wire in the Georgia Dome.

Now you are fully aware of Wichita State, and just in time. With a Final Four in their rearview and an undefeated nonconference slate all but wrapped up, there is no chance you will be able to miss the 2013-14 Shockers. Marshall's program is officially mainstream.

And it's not just because this team is better than any he has coached before, though that appears to be very much the case. The Shockers have a senior forward, Cleanthony Early, who rivals any in the country for sheer breadth of skill They have a guard, Ron Baker, who is preternaturally efficient both while shooting and ballhandling; and they have, as usual, a host of complementary players who do everything Marshall asks: get to the rim, don't turn the ball over and rebound, rebound, rebound.

But it's not just that the Shockers are good. It’s that, after Tuesday night's 72-67 escape against Alabama, they find themselves in a sudden, unique position: They’ll be favored for the rest of the season until the NCAA tournament, usually heavily.

With BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and now the Crimson Tide out of the way, the Shockers have vanquished every significant nonconference test on their schedule. What remains are two home games against NC Central and Davidson. Those are not bad teams -- but they are also not likely to beat Wichita State in the Koch Center.

From there, it's on to the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton, since moved to the Big East, is no longer around to challenge the Shockers for supremacy. Based on early returns, Indiana State looks like the next best thing -- the Sycamores are 7-2 with a win at Notre Dame and entered Tuesday ranked No. 66 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Northern Iowa and Drake are interesting, particularly in their own buildings. Illinois State has gone way up-tempo. But let's be clear: None of these teams comes close to where Wichita State is on both sides of the ball right now. They won't be by the end of the season, either.

Oh, and let's be clear about another thing: This is not a prediction of an undefeated season. (It is not even a column asking why such predictions are so quickly shouted down, lest it be routinely confused for said prediction.) Wichita State will lose a game or two or more on its way to March, sooner or later.

If it is later, though, expect the ruckus to come with it. The hint of an undefeated season at an Ohio Valley Conference school (Murray State) got everyone excited two years ago; imagine what happens if/when a school with Wichita State's name recognition stretches its record to 20-0, or 25-0. "Unbeaten watch" chyrons will flood your TV screens. Live look-ins on close games will become routine. Statistical probabilities will be argued. Courts will be convened, spoils will be enjoyed, etc.

And, finally, a program that should have been a household name just a couple years ago -- a program that lost a swath of seniors from one of its best teams ever, replaced them with a group good enough to get to a Final Four the next season, with a coach that still had to explain to reporters the obvious reasons why he wanted to stay in his current job -- will earn that status once and for all. If there is anything worth predicting here, that is probably it.

Wichita State has been a model of success under Marshall -- quietly so. Marshall had to explain his good life for a reason, after all.

Now things are about to get loud.