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Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Wichita State with zero to lose

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

WICHITA, Kan. -- At the start of the season, Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, his coaches and his players each made two lists of goals -- personal and academic for the players, personal and professional for the coaches.

Then Steve Dickie, the team chaplain and character coach, asked them to boil those goals into one word that would define their season.

Marshall's word: appreciate.

"I don't want to wait until I'm 70, sitting on the beach and looking for a buddy to drink a beer and try to remember it all,'' Marshall said. "I want to appreciate now.''

Should he succeed, should he and his players enjoy the moments as they are actually occurring, that might be an even greater accomplishment than what Wichita State is doing on the court.

The Shockers are currently No. 4 in the country, ninth in the RPI, 12th in the BPI and passing every eye test as well as I test.

But above all else, they are undefeated, standing alongside Syracuse as the lone teams left without a blemish.

Alongside and yet separate, that is. Separate because for Syracuse, this will all come along again. Maybe not undefeated into February, but national relevance, a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, those things are as certain as snow falling in central New York.

For Wichita State, who knows? Who knows when three national reporters will make the ride from Lawrence to Wichita in three successive days as they did last month? Who knows when the Shockers will see their name along a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology again? Who knows when anyone will be talking about Wichita State again?

That's not a knock on a reliable and well-constructed program but the reality of the dollars and cents of college sports. Ten years ago, Saint Joseph's triumphantly marched into the Atlantic 10 tournament with a perfect 27-0 record, the first team to finish the regular season unscathed since UNLV in 1991. The Hawks have made it back to the NCAA tournament just once since.

Two years ago, Murray State rolled to a 23-0 mark before losing in early February. Last season, the Racers didn't make it to the postseason.

Gregg Marshall and Fred VanVleet
Gregg Marshall and Fred VanVleet are determined to enjoy this season and the chase of perfection.

"I don't know if I would put the word enjoyment on it,'' St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "I was amazed by it. ... And I used to agonize over the fact that my players were so non-pulsed, that I was hoping and praying they were enjoying it, that they realized they were walking on a path that very few athletes, forget college basketball players, had walked. I really wrestled with, 'What does this mean for our guys?'"

That's the funny thing about a goose egg in the L column.

Every coach, every athlete sets out to win every game, and yet when it happens, when one victory steamrolls into another and the schedule grows shorter, the big fat zero starts to feel more like an albatross than an accomplishment.

It can be constraining and all-consuming at the same time, so massive that people actually wonder if it would be better for a team to lose, which flies in the face of the entire concept of competition ("So H&R Block does 11,000 perfect tax returns, they should throw in a bad one once in a while just to take off the pressure?'' Martelli said).

Marshall knows all of that. He knows the St. Joe's story and the Murray State one, knows even more the odds at what his team is doing -- coming off a Final Four, gunning for another, undefeated, all out of the Missouri Valley.

That's why he's preaching to his team to embrace the big, fat zero, celebrate it and all the goofy stuff -- the autograph seekers, picture takers and media questioners -- that comes along with it.

And so far they seem to be listening. Instead of playing deaf, dumb and blind to the goose egg, pretending that it doesn't matter or more, doesn't exist, they admit that yeah, it's pretty cool.

"You work for this, to win every game,'' sophomore guard Fred VanVleet said. "That's why you play. We take pride in it.''

The truth is, no one expects Wichita State to be doing what it is doing. As top-10 teams go, the Shockers are all wrong. They are more an amalgamation of well-matched misfits than an amassment of talent.

No one on this roster was born with a silver Nike on his foot. Each came through success' back door.

Leading scorer Cleanthony Early is a future NBA player by way of a Division III junior college, which would be called the long road if it were even a road that ever had been paved. Early opted for Sullivan Community College, just 30 miles from his Middletown, N.Y. home, after his older brother, Jamel, drowned.

Ron Baker, the shaggy-haired, second-leading scorer on the team, is a country boy who grew up in Scott City, Kan. (population 3,816). His parents drove him 24 miles each way to high school and he only came to Wichita State after his coach essentially begged the Shockers' coaching staff to look at him one time. He paid his own way as a redshirt his first year.

"From where I come from, it's pretty amazing where I sit right now,'' Baker said. "If you had told me I'd be sitting here back in the day, I would have said you were crazy.''

VanVleet, who ranks third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, grew up in Rosemont, Ill. His parents struggled to make ends meet but willingly made sacrifices so their boys could pursue their basketball dreams and stay out of trouble. Even after all that hard work, his choices boiled down to Kent State, Northern Illinois and Wichita State.

Tekele Cotton, he of the monster-dunk highlight reel, played the better part of his high school career with a serious groin injury. He needed rest but refused to miss time and the injury likely cost him several scholarship options. In the end he chose between Wichita State, Morehead State, Murray State and Tennessee State.

"They do play with a little chip on their shoulder because none of them were blue chip recruits out of high school,'' Marshall said. "People always told them what they couldn't do as opposed to what they could.''

That freedom of expectation, though, might just make the Shockers best suited to do the impossible.

Can't-miss players can't miss. These guys? They're expected to miss.

Cleanthony Early
Cleanthony Early wasn't on the fast track to Division I basketball. But much like some of his teammates, here he is -- and here they are still unbeaten.

They are a big deal, but a big deal in a small setting. Devoid of a pro team in the city, Wichita is devoted to the Shockers, and has been long before this season. Fans want to send Marshall bottles of wine at dinner and pose for pictures with the players at the mall.

But it's a nice kind of devotion. There would be disappointment, certainly, if they lost, but there isn't that day-to-day angst over winning them all and winning it all because, until recently, that's never been a reachable goal. Even with a big gym, big budget and a Final Four run on its résumé, Wichita State remains more the little engine that could than the sports car that must.

Of course it was the same for Martelli's squad. Little St. Joe's with its tiny gym and tiny point guard (Jameer Nelson) and unheralded 2-guard (Delonte West) was a warm, fuzzy story that snowballed into a monster. By the time the Hawks hit February, the feel-good part was being pecked to death with questions. Was St. Joe's, for example, deserving of a No. 1 seed or even the No. 1 ranking it inherited for a week? Their competition, after all, wasn't the same and when the Hawks did receive a top spot in the tourney, analyst Billy Packer memorably went on a vicious rant attacking the decision.

Wichita State is entering that vortex now. The Missouri Valley isn't the power mid-major that it used to be, currently with the 12th-best RPI of any conference in the country, behind the West Coast and Mountain West, narrowly beating the Mid-American. Losing Creighton robbed the Shockers of a worthy adversary for the long term, but especially hurts them this year.

"Calling into question their league, that's not fair,'' Martelli said. "Straight up, here's the game, win or lose. Twenty-however-many times it is now, they've won. This is a numeric game and zero is a big number in the loss column.''

The straight-talking Marshall isn't playing that game. The man who jokingly refers to himself as a 29-year-old overnight sensation, referencing his long climb up the coaching ladder, isn't about to let outsiders spoil his fun.

He already told USA Today how he feels about his team's future seeding -- "We'd be 34-0. I don't care who you are playing. If you are playing a damned NAIA schedule, you should be a No. 1 seed." -- a comment that further endeared him to his players, who get the chip on their shoulder from his.

"I grew up around a lot of trash talking and a lot of confident, arrogant guys who didn't have the right to be confident and arrogant,'' VanVleet said. "So seeing someone in his position, to have that confidence, it really empowers us to be our own men. Some of the older, more established coaches, they have to act like they've been there before. We don't have to do that because he lets us enjoy it.''

And the Shockers are bound and determined to enjoy it.