#WATCHTHEM: The Damage Wichita State Can Do

Kansas has watched them for decades. The mid-major community watched them all season. America watched them for a few weeks. Now, Wichita State is ready for their closeup, and after their NCAA Tournament run, it just might be the Shockers' time.

It has been a little over a month since Wichita State made its improbable run to the Final Four. We chronicled that here, along with all the reasons why and why not the Shockers had a chance to win the whole thing. Our own Adam Hermann looks back at the run that was. Thanks to coach Gregg Marshall for his assistance.

Judging only from a few quick Wikipedia facts, one might conclude that Wichita State University is a farming school. Their mascot, the Shocker, is a shortened version of the school's previous nickname, the Wheatshockers. The mascot's image is a grinning, aggressive shock of wheat. The school's newspaper is named The Sunflower. One Wichita State satellite campus is located in Maize, Kansas; "maize" is a commonly used name for corn.

In the grand scheme of college basketball, Wichita State might as well be on some plot of land in the middle of Kansas. They compete in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), often considered the most elite mid-major conference in the country. Of course, this is like complimenting someone for being the fastest runner on his or her junior varsity track team.

At least, that's how the six major conferences treat mid-major conferences such as the MVC. But when the Shockers broke into the mainstream's eye this past March, they suddenly were garnering attention from the same basketball analysts who had been ignoring them all season. For those who had been following them since November, their season slogan of "#WATCHUS" had never rung so true.

The Run

All season long, mid-major fans knew that the Shockers were something special. They had continued to "#WATCH" them. Now the rest of the country was finding out what they had been missing.

"I have never seen our community so thrilled about Shocker hoops," one Shocker fan, who asked to be cited as FSF, said. "Everywhere I went, folks were discussing it and joining together to witness the games all over town and in their homes."

With an endowment one-fiftieth - yes, that's fifty, as in five-zero - the size of the University of Michigan, the Shockers were able to push through Midwest region, reaching the national semifinals just the same as the Wolverines. A student body of 14,806, just 66.4 percent of their semifinal opponent Louisville, was enthralled by the determination of 14 young men and their resilient coaching staff, helmed by Gregg Marshall, who is now working on his second mid-major project as head coach.

After serving as head coach of Winthrop for nine seasons of .700 basketball and leading the Eagles to seven NCAA Tournament appearances, Marshall knows a thing or two about special mid-major programs and what they can do for an area.

This Shockers run had that kind of magical impact.

"When we were playing in the tournament and winning, you heard from folks back home saying, ‘The city is on fire!' or ‘This place is electric!'" Marshall said.

Yet the impact on the community in the immediate sense is just one aspect; for a coach like Marshall and a program like Wichita State, the goal is long term success and the building of a rabid fan base, both of which can be born from a run as influential as the Shockers' streak.

"I think the overall feeling of "I can do this" is instilled in the community," he said. "A positive vibe overcomes the entire area, city, region, which translates to more folks starting projects or taking a chance because they see good in what the Shockers achieved."

They are more than a school with a funny mascot and a one-off tournament run in Gregg Marshall's eyes. Wichita State's men's basketball team sent a message in late March to America, alerting them to the kind of strength and talent that can come out of Charles Koch Arena on East 21st Street. More importantly, they sent a message to the Wichita community, convincing themselves that this run was supposed to happen, and could happen more than once.

They can do this.

The Plan

Here at Mid-Major Madness, unlike most fans of the annual NCAA Cinderella story, we pay attention to the little guys all year long. It takes an extra level of dedication because mid-majors don't get the same national television coverage that Big Ten teams do.

Which is why, when we ruminate on the run, it feels more satisfying than anything else. Not disappointing that they lost, or frightening that it might not happen again. It felt good to watch it happen.

So many major conference team fans automatically discount teams from the other conferences. They don't think it is possible for a run like this to occur. But when you watch these teams for four months, you see the potential -- and we specifically had the numbers to back up that potential -- and it doesn't come as a shock.

Not only do we find validation in Wichita State's emergence on the national stage, it seems entirely believable that a run like this could change the Shockers basketball program long-term.

The Shockers could be that next consistent threat, a la VCU and Butler, who have seen their past successes in the tournament translate into consistently competitive programs on the national stage. Gregg Marshall is building a team based on strong high school and JUCO recruiting. And most of all, they face a top level of competition in the Missouri Valley, even though few people acknowledge that.

This team could make the next several tournaments, and the only thing that should hold them back is themselves.

For all of their success this season, however, the Shockers' most profound impact on the mid-major community will come into focus in the next year or two.

The college sports landscape has recently been put through a washing machine, shaking it up and spitting it out new and fresh. It sounds exciting, but the refreshing of conference alignment has hit smaller conferences hard. Even the MVC has felt the effects of realignment, with Creighton, its flagship basketball program, jumping ship to join the new Big East.

Teams have scattered from the smaller mid-major conferences in search of more generous paydays. If Wichita State decides to stay in the Missouri Valley Conference, it would be a boon for the MVC and mid-major fans everywhere.

It brings to mind the differing patterns that teams have taken lately versus what Gonzaga University did after the 1999 NCAA Tournament.

This past season, Butler and VCU moved to the Atlantic-10 after their deep tournament runs, looking to elevate their respective profiles with a bigger name mid-major conference.

However, in 1999, Gonzaga burst onto the scene with a run in the NCAA Tournament akin to what Wichita State did this year. They reached the Elite Eight rather than the Final Four, but they knocked off a number of higher-seeded teams as a 10-seed en route to a single-digit loss to the eventual tournament champion.

As Ron Lieber of the Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2004, the university experienced a 65-percent increase in the size of the freshman class between 1997 and 2003 in the wake of the run. Head Coach Dan Monson left for the head coaching position at the University of Minnesota, the school his Bulldogs had beaten in the first round of their Cinderella run.

Yet Gonzaga stood pat, staying in the West Coast Conference, their longtime home.

If the Shockers decide to stay in the MVC after this run in the tournament, and with Creighton gone, they would unquestionably be the premier basketball program in the conference. It could give them a sense of consistency and a strong reputation, two facets that Gonzaga has used to build their program. Since that 1999 run, the Bulldogs have won at least 23 games and have appeared in the NCAA Tournament each year.

Wichita State should take the same approach.

They need to do everything they can to keep the program running consistently, much like Gonzaga has with Mark Few. They should think very hard about staying in the Missouri Valley Conference and becoming the dominant players there for the foreseeable future. That will give them the best chance of the sustained success that can come from this run.

The Lesson

It is hard to realize in the heat of the moment that winning is not the only way to create a legacy.

On Saturday, April 6, 2013, it was hard to swallow the loss for all of Shocker Nation. Yet just minutes after the crushing loss to Louisville, Gregg Marshall sat on a black folding chair in the Wichita State locker room in the Georgia Dome and told his team to keep their heads held high. He told them that they should be proud of this season. That they should be proud of the way they played, and how far the team progressed in the NCAA Tournament. And that they should be proud to wear the Wichita State jersey.

"This isn't the end," Marshall said, "because you've done something that now every team that ever plays at this university will strive to repeat."

Marshall spoke with the future in mind. He spoke of the fans the team had gained during the run, from the city of Wichita, to the western United States, to the fans that they did not even know about.

This speech was not just about this tournament run. Marshall was using this loss to explain the larger impact of what those young men had just done for the school that gave them this opportunity. Those people in Wichita, and Kansas, and around the country were not just rooting for these players. They were rooting for a new program, a new logo, and a breath of fresh Kansas air.

After he and his team returned home to Wichita, the ever-impressive head coach took out a full-page newspaper ad in the Wichita Eagle, thanking the team's fans for their rabid support throughout the regular and postseasons.

At the bottom it read, "We Keep Marching."

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