Last year in Portland, the day before Wichita State played VCU, Gregg Marshall walked through the hallways of the Rose Garden in Portland with an easy and weightless demeanor. He folded his arms and watched his team during workouts, smiling with assistant coaches, rarely intervening for instruction. By then, his coaching points had been firmly integrated into a basketball team which had plenty of experience. When a team has 5 seniors, that will define it in March, as analysts and experts predict their dark horses. Wichita State was a mustang, black as night.
But there was a problem, and we heard nothing about it leading up to the VCU game because it's far from uncommon at tournament time: Those seniors had absolutely no experience in the field of 68. So naturally, no other Shocker showed the demeanor of a Gregg Marshall, a man making his 8th appearance in the NCAA bracket after 7 showings leading Winthrop. He had certainly been to the puppet show, and seen all the strings. His eyes needed not to wander.
"I had zero years experience in the coaching staff, managers, trainers, players. This year, that won't be the case," Marshall recalled for the media on Selection Sunday. "We won't be wide-eyed and just happy to be there, as opposed to being there with an intent on winning and advancing."
How do we quantify the importance of that experience? In sports, its called being "battle-tested." To me, its called, "not driving a stick-shift while trying to get an ice cream cone across town to my girlfriend." It got me pulled over. Luckily, it caused the highway patrolman to give a warning in exchange for the right to tell his buddies about pulling over the KAKE Sports guy and making him eat a whole ice cream cone before he'd let him back on the road. I ate my pride along with it.
Basically, it's the luxury of learning from mistakes. Not that the Shockers made many in last year's tournament. They didn't. Only one more turnover than VCU with a virtually identical FG%, with a virtually identical score, 62-59. But it was far from identical to their most efficient performances. Joe Ragland admitted as much, saying the team came out slower than they expected against the famed VCU press defense. They had the NCAA jitters. This year, according to Marshall, that won't be the case. He's accustomed to seeing his team make the right adjustments.
"We got better at (facing the press.) Unfortunately, we got better at it a little later than we wanted because we went to their place this year and beat them, which is probably a big reason we're a 9-seed," Marshall pointed out, illustrating precisely that experience-laden guidance capable of defining them in this tournament.
But while it will be nice to come in under the banner of being in their second NCAA Tournament in as many years for the first time since 1987 and 1988, Carl Hall and Demetric Williams are the only players with more than 7 minutes of action against VCU last year. They're team leaders and they'll use every memory of Portland to impart wisdom on teammates, but Malcolm Armstead, Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker - they'll be newcomers, living a "dream come true" as they describe it.
Pittsburgh is equally as experienced and inexperienced, as an almost perennial at-large team out of the Big East. Despite a rebuilding year in 2012 that culminated in a CBI tournament championship, the Panthers haven't lost in the first round in their last 6 NCAA tourney appearances. Leading scorer Tray Woodall is a senior who has played in 8 NCAA Tournament games, including one Elite Eight game. He's one of two Panther seniors who will dust off their dancing shoes in this return to the bracket.
So while no distinction can be made between the teams in terms of on-court comfort and familiarity, it will be HOW these teams draw from their experience which will play a major part in the outcome of this contest, one of the toughest ones to predict.
WSU vs The World:
Gregg Marshall's Winthrop teams made 7 NCAA tournaments. Certainly, those teams had compiled an NCAA tournament resume. Problem is, it wasn't a good one. Winthrop lost in the first round in 6 of those 7 years. Marshall's NCAA tournament record is 1-7, which shouldn't be scoffed at considering Winthrop, coming out of the Big South conference, was never in position to be matched up with a low seed. But the 5th-seeded 2012 Shockers produced the same return when matched up with a 12, although it was a questionable 12 at best.
"VCU as a 12 was an absolute joke," Marshall said Sunday. "It was a tough draw and it came down to one possession. And it was very difficult to prepare for. Now this team (Pitt) is going to play basketball. Just half-court, grind-it-out... This is not an easier team to prepare for but we don't have to prepare for the havoc."
Maybe not, but the Shockers DO have to prepare for a team that won 24 games, including against Villanova twice, Cincinnati, Syracuse, and Georgetown, while losing 7 of its 8 games to teams which made this NCAA Tournament. The Panthers as an 8-seed may also be called, in the not too distant future, a joke.
Creighton is the only such loss for WSU, so we can see why the computers and talking heads love Pitt to not only beat the Shockers but possibly even beat Gonzaga in the third round. In fact, ESPN says Pitt has a 37% chance of making the Sweet Sixteen, saying if Pitt plays Gonzaga, there's a 50% chance the Panthers move on.
Meanwhile, Gregg Marshall and the Shockers will embrace the underdog status, Pittsburgh will flex its muscle as a national contender for a Final FOur run, and the nation will act as though its not surprised regardless of the outcome, because no one bets on 8/9 teams to go far in their own brackets due to the uncertainty of the first game.
Because in the end, the bracket with the least amount of red marks is a trophy in itself. But even if an office pool champion doesn't stop to just enjoy the basketball, they'll end up on the side of the road with a treat that suddenly doesn't taste as good.