March 26, 2013
Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall can't wait to get the Shockers to Los Angeles for the West Regional at Staples Center.
His ninth-seeded team meets No. 13 La Salle in Thursday night's battle of NCAA overlooked underdogs.
Two wins in the West earns one team a trip to the Final Four.
You might expect Marshall to be nervous staring into the bright lights of our city, but, truth be told, he's already been front-page news here. His face graced the cover of this Sports section March 16, 1999.
The yellowing edition of that paper has sat in my home-office desk drawer for 14 years.
Marshall was the central figure in the most enjoyable assignment I've had in three decades working for this newspaper.
I admit now to partly rigging the story, convincing my bosses to let me shadow a No. 16-seeded team as it prepared to be pan-seared in the NCAA tournament. A No. 16 to that point had never defeated a No. 1, and still hasn't. The ledger is 116-0.
I picked Winthrop in part because I liked the sound of it — and because my older sister Laura teaches art history at the school in Rock Hill, S.C. She does not follow sports and was aware of Marshall only because he made more money than she did.
I embedded with Winthrop from the moment the selection committee announced the Eagles would play top-seeded Auburn in a first-round South Regional game in Indianapolis. Marshall gave me full access. One highlight was being allowed in Winthrop's locker room on game day while CBS cameras were turned away.
A running theme that week was Marshall's wife, Lynn, having a crush on then-UCLA coach Steve Lavin. It was luck that UCLA was also playing in Indianapolis.
Lavin was standing in the hotel lobby on game day and we all laughed because Lynn Marshall wasn't there to see him.
Before the game, in the locker room, Marshall wrote on the chalkboard: "Five guys building a wall."
Auburn knocked down the wall by the final score of 80-41.
I left Indianapolis thinking Marshall, then 36, was a good young coach with a bright future. I never thought to say, "See you in L.A. in 2013."
He took Winthrop to the NCAA tournament six more times and capped his career there in 2007 with an upset win over Notre Dame. He left the next season for Wichita State.
I had not seen nor spoken to Marshall until last Thursday, at the subregional in Salt Lake City. We reconnected, 14 years later, in the corridor of EnergySolutions Arena.
"Hey, Chris," Marshall said, "how is your sister Laura?"
That blew me away. One famous football coach whose name I won't mention didn't recognize my face six months after he left Utah to coach at Florida.
In Salt Lake, I watched Wichita State completely dismantle Pittsburgh of the mighty Big East Conference and knew immediately that top-ranked Gonzaga was in serious trouble.
Two days later, Wichita State beat Gonzaga, 76-70, the Shockers' first win over a No. 1 team in 50 years.
Marshall sat on a stool outside the Wichita State locker room and tried to explain the euphoria. "They have a great program, but today they had to beat us," he said. "…Nobody in our program comes from basketball royalty. We're all blue-collar. We're hard-hat and steel-toed workers.… I'm just along for the ride."
Wichita State reminds me a lot of that eclectic cast of characters I followed at Winthrop. The Wichita players are just better at basketball.
The Winthrop kids had nicknames such as "Fish Tank," "Money" and "Bubbles." They had a freshman forward from Nigeria named Ey Effiong and a string-bean guard, Robbie Waldrop, who scored six points against Auburn despite a life-threatening swollen spleen.
Wichita State's roster also includes a player from Nigeria, 7-foot senior center Ehimen Orukpe. He was part of the defensive swarm that helped hold Gonzaga to 35.6% shooting.
Ron Baker, a mop-top freshman guard, missed 21 games this season because of a foot injury. He hit four three-pointers against Gonzaga and finished with 16 points. Carl Hall, a tough but undersized forward, wears goggles. Tekele Cotton is the team's lock-down defender.
The real character is senior guard Malcolm Armstead, a transfer from Oregon. With only one year of eligibility left, Armstead phoned Wichita State and said he wanted to be a Shocker. Marshall told him he didn't have a scholarship to offer. Armstead took out loans to pay his own way.
"He's probably still in debt to this day," Marshall said.
Armstead had to sit out last year under NCAA transfer rules but has made the most of his senior moment. Fairly quiet off the court, he can't stop jabbering on it.
During one game this season, Marshall couldn't get Armstead's attention because he was busy talking to the opposing team's guard.
"I finally said, 'Malcolm, I'm trying to get your attention and you're talking to this other kid. What are you telling him?'" Marshall recalled. "He goes, 'Well, Coach, I had just taken the ball from him and I was telling him he can't dribble the ball so high. It's not going to work.' And I'm going, 'Why are you doing that to the opposition?' And he says, 'Well, he's a nice kid and I want to see him do well.' "
The opening line from my 1999 story was, "What a week it was with Winthrop."
Fourteen years later it's been updated to, "What a weekend it was with Wichita."
At the end of a midweek practice before the NCAA tournament in 1999, first-year Winthrop coach Marshall gathered his team together and said, "Get ready to make history."
It didn't happen to Winthrop then, but it could happen to Wichita now.
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