CLEVELAND – Gregg Marshall remembers the Notre Dame team of 2006-07 vividly.
Marshall – now the head coach of Wichita State, whose No. 7-seeded Shockers square off against No. 3-seeded Notre Dame Wednesday in Sweet 16 action – was the head coach at Winthrop eight seasons ago when the Eagles played the Irish in the NCAA tournament.
“They had two first-team all-conference guys (Colin Falls and Russell Carter), plus a young post player by the name of (Luke) Harangody, who turned out to be pretty good,” said Marshall from the Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday afternoon. “I loved (Mike Brey’s) his team then.
“This is a better team. To go into the ACC in the second year and win that tournament by beating North Carolina and Duke in Greensboro is a very difficult task. Not too many teams can do that.”
As impressive as the Irish were in sweeping through the ACC tournament, and then advancing to the Sweet 16 with gritty victories over Northeastern and Butler, Notre Dame has nothing on the Shockers.
Wichita State went 17-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference this season to win the regular-season championship before losing to Illinois State in the semifinals of the conference tournament. They enter Thursday’s game with a 30-4 overall record.
Last season, the Shockers were the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region after posting a 34-0 mark through the MVC tournament. They ran into a reloading Kentucky team – a No. 8 seed – and the Wildcats knocked off Wichita State, ruining a perfect season in the Round of 32.
In 2013, all the Shockers did was come into the NCAA tournament as the No. 9 seed and systematically dispatch No. 8 seed Pittsburgh, No. 1 seed Gonzaga, No. 13 seed LaSalle and No. 2 seed Ohio State to get to the Final Four before falling to eventual national champion Louisville.
The mutual admiration for one another goes both ways in Cleveland this week, and the Shockers show the respect due to Notre Dame.
“Obviously, they space the floor with multiple guys who shoot a high percentage from three,” said junior point guard Fred VanVleet. “They’ve got a couple guards that really get in the paint and create.
“You’re talking about one of the better offensive teams in the country. Obviously, they present a challenge for us, but in preparing for them, I think we’ll be ready.”
“They’re really good offensively,” said senior guard Darius Carter, Jr., an Akron native returning close to his hometown this week. “They shoot a great percentage from three. They come off ball screens, drive and contribute to the other players around the perimeter. That’s how they get their wide-open looks.”
The Shockers are dealing with a couple of other factors One, the emotional cost of Sunday’s victory over in-state Kansas potentially could take a toll. It had been 22 years since Kansas and Wichita State had squared off, and it wasn’t because the Shockers were dodging a meeting with the Jayhawks.
“From my perspective, it doesn’t matter who the team is,” Marshall said. “We prepare the same. If we lose to that next team, there is no Saturday game.
“We’re just going to prepare for Notre Dame and give everything we’ve got to win that game, and whoever it’s going to be, if we’re fortunate enough to win, either Kentucky or West Virginia, we’ll do the same with them.”
Another potential distraction is the word that Alabama is courting Marshall, which Marshall hasn’t exactly dodged since news leaked out earlier in the week. Teams from major conferences continue to sniff around Marshall’s program. Marshall says he’s used to it and doesn’t back down from talking about outside interest.
“My philosophy is I just tell people the truth,” Marshall said. “I don’t try to sugarcoat things if they don’t need to be sugarcoated. That’s something I’m not worried about. None of my players are worried about it. None of my staff is worried about it. I’m coaching my team.
“I’ve said how content and happy I am at Wichita State over and over and over again. It could be the last job I ever have. I could retire from here. At the same time, I don’t bury my head in the sand. If a tremendous offer comes along, we look at it as a family. That’s been something we’ve dealt with probably 13 of the last 17 years. But I’ve had two jobs in that time.”
As good as Notre Dame is, Marshall and the Shockers know how good they are after winning 65-of-70 games the last two years, success that came after making a run to the Final Four.
“(Notre Dame) has five guys on the floor that can all score the basketball,” Marshall said. “They can all shoot it, most of them can drive it, and they’re tough, I love their tenacity. (Brey) has done a great job.
“The unusual thing about our team is that we can play at just about any pace. People underestimate our athleticism and speed. We choose to grind it out defensively and guard people, so that may be the reason our pace is a little slower at time. But we can get up and down like we did against Indiana, or we can go half-court with you.”
It’s a battle of talent and wills Thursday from the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland with no shortage of confidence on either side.
“I think we have great momentum, not only at Pittsburgh, but our ACC games,” Brey said. “I like how we’ve played, our toughness, and our defense has been key in all five of our post-season games.”