NIT semifinal berth on the line for Hoosiers, Shockers

Until Wichita State’s team charter flight landed in Monroe County on Sunday evening, Gregg Marshall had been to Bloomington only once before.

The first trip came more than two decades ago, when Marshall was an up-and-coming assistant at the College of Charleston. He was visiting for a recruiting event, and during a break in the action, Marshall made a pass down 17th street to check out the local college basketball cathedral.

“As I drove over by Assembly Hall, I actually saw Bob Knight walk out,” Marshall, now in his 12th season as Wichita State’s head coach, recalled Monday. “It was in the evening. He was walking out of a practice, his office, whatever he was doing. Didn’t know him at the time — I’ve met him since — but I did see him. I didn’t speak to him.”

Monday marked the first time Marshall walked inside the venerable arena, conducting a mid-day practice less than 24 hours after his sixth-seeded Shockers extended their season with a wire-to-wire victory at No. 2 Clemson in the second-round of the NIT. Two months ago, Marshall wouldn’t have believed such a trip would be in the making for his program.

Wichita State started the season 8-11 overall, 1-6 in the American Athletic Conference and didn’t pick up its first road win until Feb. 6. The Shockers are a young and inexperienced team, and for much of the season they played like it.

Not so much, anymore.

Entering Tuesday’s 7 p.m. NIT quarterfinals showdown with top-seeded Indiana, Wichita State is playing its best basketball of the season. The Shockers have grown up, they’ve embraced Marshall’s commitment to defense and rebounding and, like the Hoosiers, they’ve made it their mission to maximize this postseason.

“We are just excited to be here in Bloomington, playing for the right to go to Madison Square Garden,” Marshall said. “Obviously, to be playing this late into March, regardless of how old or young or new or old, veteran, inexperienced your basketball team is, it’s great.

“We had a nice little practice (Monday). Our practice before the Clemson game was our best of the year, so my guys are enjoying playing. I’m enjoying coaching them. As long as we can continue to do that and win, we’ll play till there are no games left.”

Wichita State has done its share of winning under Marshall, who has boosted the program’s prestige during his decade-plus at the helm. Marshall has guided the Shockers to seven of the program’s 15 all-time NCAA Tournament trips, reaching the Final Four in 2013 and the Sweet 16 in 2015.

This is the first time since 2011 that Wichita State has not secured an NCAA bid, a not-altogether surprising development considering the construction of its roster.

The Shockers returned only 12.1 percent of their points and merely 11.2 percent of their minutes from last season. As the year has unfolded, seven freshmen and 10 total newcomers have seen their first Division I action, with those in the freshman class accounting for 44.8 percent of Wichita State’s total minutes.

Marshall has had at least one freshman on the court for every second of every game.

With that inexperience has come a season full of growing pains. The Shockers dropped seven of eight contests as the calendar flipped to 2019, and it took time for Marshall to build confidence inside of his rotations.

Now, though, Wichita State is enjoying the kind of turnaround that didn’t seem possible two months ago.

Since scoring a buzzer-beating victory over SMU on Jan. 30, the Shockers have won 13 of their last 16 games, and eight of their last nine. And for a team that struggled to win outside of Charles Koch Arena during the season’s first half, road trips haven’t appeared as daunting.

Wichita State, which own’s the nation’s second-highest road winning percentage (.786) since the 2013-14 season, has won six of its last seven true road contests.

“Prior to this year, we had been the single best road team in the country percentage-wise,” Marshall said. “Obviously, we’re not that any more because we did lose a handful or more this year on the road early. We just played scared. We played tentative. If we didn’t make a shot or two, we stopped defending, stopped rebounding. Quite frankly, some games got out of control. That hasn’t been the case (lately), but this year early on it was.”

Although Wichita State has struggled to shoot with consistency this season — the Shockers enter Tuesday’s game ranked 320th nationally in 3-point percentage (.310) and 279th in 2-point percentage (47.3) — Marshall’s team has learned how to grind out victories and win ugly.

Since that SMU victory on Jan. 30, Wichita State is a plus-5.1 in the rebound margin. In that same 16-game span, the Shockers are averaging only 10.1 turnovers. They may not be the prettiest team, but as March rolls on, they’ve become one of the hottest squads left.

To understand what Indiana is up against on Tuesday night, IU coach Archie Miller can draw from experience. His final game at Dayton came against Wichita State in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. In that contest, the Flyers were held to 0.91 points per possession and were out-rebounded 48-29.

“When you play them, you just have to understand what’s going on,” Miller said. “If you’re not ready to rebound and play hard, you’re not ready to compete, they’re going to get you. That’s been their MO as long as Coach Marshall has been there. Their mantra is just toughness.”

There’s one name Miller remembers from that 2017 matchup: Markis McDuffie, the lone Shocker with postseason experience. McDuffie’s 18.3 points per game is the highest scoring average for a Wichita State player in Marshall’s tenure. A second team All-AAC selection, McDuffie has attempted a school-record 228 3-pointers this season — he’s shooting 34 percent beyond the arc — and he ranks 10th in the AAC with 5.2 fouls drawn per game.

“McDuffie is one of the hardest covers we’ll see all season, as versatile as he is,” Miller said.

A Paterson, N.J. native, McDuffie grew up across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Just as it would be for Indiana’s Devonte Green, a trip to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden would represent a happy homecoming for the upperclassman.

But first, there’s a matchup with Indiana on deck.

For Marshall and the Shockers, it’s another opportunity to get better — and older.

“It’s just been fun to watch this team evolve,” Marshall said. “We’ve gotten a lot, lot better in the last eight weeks.”