By Matt Norlander
Gregg Marshall doesn't want to hear it, but he knows it's coming.
"It's not a debate," he says.
We're talking top seed for the Shockers here. One of the best stories in college basketball this season invariably has to be reduced to a talking point, and that discourse is set to vamp up as we head for the exit of the regular season. Wichita State quietly won again on Sunday, beating Evansville by 16 on the road behind a career-high 26 points from Ron Baker to improve to 27-0.
27-0. That was St. Joseph's end-of-season record 10 years ago when it became the most recent team to end its slate without a scratch. You'll probably recall how it was hotly debated then whether SJU should have had a top spot in the bracket after promptly dropping a game in the A-10 quarters to Xavier. The Hawks did end up getting that No. 1 and went on to lose in a terrific Elite Eight game to No. 2 Oklahoma State. That Hawks team's legacy remains a proud one, and if anything, improves with each passing year we don't see a team run the table.
Wichita State is still working on building something similar to St. Joe's, while all the time making it their own. And regarding 27 games, this team isn't so fortunate to end things there. Marshall's men still have four more to play before the Missouri Valley tournament begins. Though it's only been 10 years, it's a different era in college hoops than it used to be. Now teams schedule as aggressively as ever, play in November exempt tournaments and up their quotient of contests. It's tougher than ever before to go wire to wire without a casualty on the schedule, in part because the schedule has grown from 25 or 27 to 30 or 31.
Also, it seems like we've never had a liberal horde of haters like the collective sports culture inhabits in these times. You kind of get the sense a lot of otherwise neutral folks are rooting for Wichita State to get clipped. It's weird. Many aplenty dismiss this group as an elite team, at the very least. They believe the Shockers shouldn't be a No. 1 seed, no matter their record. Undefeated in the regular season? Who'd your team beat, Gregg? Saint Louis... and?
That's what the cynics are saying now, and while plenty (including this author) will back Wichita State to a No. 1 so long as it's without a loss, the volume -- in both senses of the word -- of detractors will grow as college basketball moves to the forefront of American sports dialogue.
"I kind of take offense to the detractors and people throwing stones and taking away from what we're doing," Marshall said. "We tried our best for the last several seasons to play the best schedule we could play. But we're not apologizing for winning as we've done. It's hard to get people to play us. I've tried doing it, so stop holding it against us."
He's talking to pundits and coaches alike. He will quite literally play any team anywhere -- so long as they're willing to head to Wichita and take in the sights at some point too.
The case against the Shockers now lies in the fact you can line up their best wins against the other teams in contention for a No. 1 seed and see the disparity. Against the RPI top 50, WSU is 2-0 with a home victory over 15-10 Tennessee and at 23-2 Saint Louis. Compare that to Syracuse (7-0), Arizona (8-2), Kansas (10-6), Florida (5-2), Michigan State (6-3) and Duke (4-3) and the Shockers fall short. Even teams like Wisconsin have six wins against the top 50. In all, there are more than 30 teams with as many or more wins against the top 50 as Wichita State. And when you expand the resumes to include records against top 100 teams, Wichita State's dossier looks even dimmer.
It has the 93rd strength of schedule according to the RPI, the (extremely flawed) metric most coveted by the NCAA tournament's selection committee. On KenPom.com, WSU's SOS comes in at 129. What annoys Marshall is how helpless he feels regarding this. It's not like he didn't try to schedule. Wichita State was caught in that hellish limbo following a Final Four trip last season: suddenly too good to schedule a home-and-home with and not good enough that a loss isn't seen as damaging.
This season is altering that reputation, and Marshall is getting more offers about home-and-homes going forward. That doesn't help in the here and now, though. Besides, either way, Marshall is ticked about the fight he knows he's probably going to have to publicly make. He laughs at the notion that, should Wichita State be unbeaten come Selection Sunday, it won't get a No. 1 seed.
"It's a stupid debate," he said Sunday night by phone. "Especially when San Diego State loses this week (at Wyoming). Michigan State loses at home -- to Nebraska. And Villanova gets beat again, that's twice, by Creighton. Loses by 20 points."
Marshall is quick to point out that Creighton was the only team on Wichita State's level in the Valley the past two seasons. Creighton went 3-2 against the Shockers before leaving the MVC for the Big East, where the Bluejays are cashing in on tons of positive pub behind the brilliant style of senior Doug McDermott, who has the bundle of player of the year awards already locked up.
"They go to the Big East. But we didn't get to go to the Big East," Marshall said.
Marshall, who turns 51 at the end of the month, is headed to his third straight NCAA tournament at Wichita State and his 10th overall as a head coach. The first seven came at Winthrop, his final one at that school in 2007, when he coached the Eagles to a 29-5 ending and knew he had to move up in the coaching world. He couldn't take clearing 25 wins and having to stress about earning a bid. That season, his team's only four losses were to clubs that earned No. 4 seeds or better in the NCAA tournament, including eventual champ UNC.
Winthrop earned an 11 seed, beat Notre Dame in the first round and fell to Oregon over the weekend. Marshall had the Wichita State offer and he finally left small-school success for a chance at bigger things and more secure NCAA tournament chances. Now, though safely in the field and with an amazing job and a "shiny" restructured contract, he finds himself having to fight against pragmatics of his scheduling yet again.
"There are two or three teams we [tried to schedule] that aren't even currently in the conversation for the tournament," Marshall said. "And another's on the bubble. One's probably in. All chose not to play us."
To the skeptics, I'll say this: Fight it all you want, but Wichita State will be on the top line if it's got a bagel in the L column come March 9, the finals of the MVC tourney. I would be stunned beyond interpretation if Wichita State isn't handed a No. 1 in that scenario. Being perfect carries symbolic and tangible significance. In fact, even one loss would keep them in the conversation. They haven't played an atrocious schedule, and the committee is well aware of the inherent boundaries that come with arranging games when you're in Marshall's position. You run the table, November to Selection Sunday, Greg Gumbel's calling your name at the top of the Selection Show broadcast. To debate against that seems a waste of time, really.
So that's not even Marshall's greatest concern.
"I realize we will only be judged by how we do in the NCAA tournament," Marshall said. "Because of the hoopla about the NCAA tournament now, and it could be a media-driven thing and what's in the psyche of the college basketball fan, it comes down to the tournament."
To some extent he's right, but I think Wichita State will also have a very positive long-term light shined upon it even if, say, it "merely" runs the table in the regular season, falls in the MVC finals and reaches the Sweet 16. If that's the worst-case scenario for this group, it's still going to be a massively successful season and a two-year experience for this program that's as good as anything from a mid-major league outside of Butler reaching consecutive national title games.
Instead of nitpicking, let's greet how great this is. Wichita State and Syracuse are trading strides and creating an unintended chase of who can last the longest. And speaking of Syracuse, Marshall made waves last week when he had a round of interviews on ESPN. During one of them, at halftime of Syracuse's game at Pitt, he was asked about the Orange. Marshall answered, and in doing so might have gained as many new fans as enemies for his honesty.
He specifically asked me to include this response to those who believe he's now rooting for Syracuse to lose.
"This is what bothers me about the media," he said. "Because that's been said, that I was publicly rooting against Syracuse. But that's not the case. I was asked, 'Would you like to be the only undefeated team?' And I said, 'Sure, who wouldn't?' That was my answer. Number two, second question, 'Who would you like to see win this game?' And I said, 'I have a rooting interest.' I could have been pulling for Pitt. And then that was it. Publicly rooting against Syracuse? That's a crock of shit. Pisses me off how people do that."
Marshall is honest and really unafraid to tackle any topic. That attitude -- along with the famous "Play Angry" mantra that Wichita State has taken on over the past year -- has also helped lead the team to this point. If it sounds as though Marshall's just ticked off at all this winning and publicity, that's not the case at all. We broached the topic of people doubting his team's rightful place as a No. 1 seed, so he defended it, as any coach is wired to do. Truth is, he's loving and cherishing this season out of a coach's fantasy. He's been reading up on Phil Martelli and said he really respects the man for how he navigated St. Joe's in 2004. Steve Prohm, too, who took Murray State to a 23-0 start two seasons ago before finally falling in league play.
"We're just doing this thing, man," Marshall said. "We're having fun. What makes it really special, is how cool this is to be 27-0, but how gratifying it is to know, because of the quality of individual that we're dealing with, it's that much better. There are exemplary people here."
It's making for a great story, and college basketball is better for it. Wichita State has people talking -- and when you have droves of doubters, that's a certain sign you've arrived, no matter what they say.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.