WICHITA, Kan. — There are some coaches in college basketball who always seem composed. They may be churning below the surface, but outwardly they're calm, keeping everything bottled up until a player makes an errant pass or an official's call goes the other way.
Gregg Marshall is not one of those coaches.
The sixth-year coach of Wichita State is the fly that fell in the can of Red Bull, perpetual motion personified. He stalks the sidelines in his jet-black suit for 40 minutes every night, his screaming voice augmented by his flailing arms and stomping feet. He'd be wasting his time if he wasn't talking to four people at once — calling for a sub, conferring with an assistant, ripping a referee, all while ordering up the next play.
“We don't always do things perfect, and when we don't, he can get loud,” admitted Carl Hall, a senior forward. “But he just wants to win. That's him. He's all about winning.”
He's been doing plenty of that lately.
The Shockers rose to No. 20 in the polls and first place in the Missouri Valley after a dramatic win over then-No. 12 Creighton last Saturday. Now at 18-2 after beating Missouri State on Wednesday night, they're well on their way toward a fourth straight season of at least 25 wins, and their second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
They've beaten mid-major darling VCU on the road, Iowa on a neutral floor and Southern Miss — another NCAA tournament-bound team — at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita.
They're also perfect at Koch Arena, their raucous on-campus home.
“Since I've been here, we've been first or second in the Valley. We've always had winning teams,” said Demetric Williams, a senior guard. “That's our expectation.”
Even when injuries ravage the team, that didn't change. Three starters went down during a week in December, and only Hall has returned. Sharpshooter Evan Wessel had season-ending surgery last week, and versatile guard Ron Baker isn't expected back until February.
Not that it matters much to Marshall. He'll coach whoever is on the floor.
“Coming into this year, we were picked fourth in the Valley for a reason,” he said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Losing four seniors off the NIT championship team two years ago, and then losing five seniors last year who happened to be our five leading scorers — we've lost nine starters in two years who were all valuable, core guys.
“We liked our recruiting class and we liked some of the guys we were redshirting, and coming in, but at the same time, they weren't proven here. So it was a fair prediction. That was one deal,” he added. “And then the three injuries, that's another adversity, a stressful unknown.”
They've managed to overcome it with one of the most diverse rosters around.
Hall is from Georgia and played junior college ball in Florida. Seven-footer Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers (Mo.) Community College. Wessel is a hometown kid who starred at Wichita Heights High School. Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile are Canadians, and Kadeem Coleby, a redshirting transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette, is originally from the Bahamas.
Somehow, they found their way to Wichita State's low-key, brick-and-mortar campus, nestled within a working-class community on a wind-swept prairie in south-central Kansas.
“It's pretty incredible what Gregg Marshall has done in his time there,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said, “with his personnel changing every year it seems.”
“I enjoy all my teams,” Marshall said, “but some are a little harder to deal with, some a little more reluctant to accept coaching. But the other day, I found myself really enjoying practice. And I'm not a smiling, happy-go-lucky guy at practice. It's a time to work, to improve, to get better. But the other day, I thought, `Man, this is fun.“'
That's a sentiment echoed by folks all over town.
Without a football program, the basketball team is the biggest thing going in a former oil boomtown that now relies heavily on the aviation industry and has struggled heavily during an economic downturn that has made corporate jets an endangered species.
Truth be told, it's been that way for years.
The Shockers were a dominant program during the 1960s, led by Hall of Fame coach Ralph Miller and buoyed by stars such as Dave “the Rave” Stallworth. They were No. 1 for a short time during the 1964-65 season, ultimately losing to John Wooden's UCLA team in the Final Four.
After a few down years, Wichita State regained national prominence in the late `70s behind future NBA players such as Xavier McDaniel, Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston. Mark Turgeon arrived in 2000, ushering in seven more years of prosperity.
It certainly hasn't ebbed with the arrival of Marshall, who took Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments and turned down more than one BCS job before signing on with the Shockers.
“We were there for nine years,” Marshall said. “There were other jobs offered to me that were a little bit better, and I wasn't interested. And I almost stayed at Winthrop. I had a 10-year contract on the table when I left. They were going to put my name on the court, but the caveat is I would have to be there 10 more years, and I didn't want to do that.”
Instead, he wanted another challenge in a new environment.
Marshall rises from his seat during an hourlong interview in his office — he's always on the move, after all — and starts pointing out mementos from his coaching career.
On one wall is a net from the championship he won as a player at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., where he also got his coaching start. Nine more nets hang from nails on another wall, the seven Big South titles that he won with the Eagles along with his first Missouri Valley title at Wichita State and the NIT title that his Shockers won two seasons ago.
There's a framed picture of him holding his son, Kellen, after Winthrop won its third Big South championship. The boy had predicted that the first team to 67 points would win, Marshall explained, and in the background the scoreboard reads, “Winthrop 67, Radford 65.”
In the corner of Marshall's office sits a surfboard from a trip to the Maui Invitational. Basketballs painted to mark milestones crowd a shelf behind his cluttered desk. The dry erase board is crammed with the names of potential recruits, the Xs and Os of a game plan, a breakdown of an opposing team's roster and enough statistics to make a sabrematrician shudder.
Marshall insists he's not a sentimental person, despite all the keepsakes. But that would help to explain why he spent so many years in Rock Hill, S.C., and why he's turned down offers to leave Wichita State for higher-paying jobs in marquee conferences.
Besides, Marshall said, he has a seven-year contract in the seven figures that rolls over every year, and there's something to be said for stability. Another good recruiting class is coming in next season, and with a few returning stars, the Shockers' momentum appears to be building rather than petering out.
Is it possible that Marshall will move on someday? Sure. Maybe even this year. But it would take the right offer in the right place, and it would have to come at the right time.
“You can't buy happy,” he said with conviction. “Winning is important to me. We've proven we can win here. And so it would have to be really, really special.”