In October, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall's goal was to win 20 games and maybe sneak into a postseason tournament. His goals were modest after graduating his top five scorers from an NCAA tournament team. An appearance in the NIT seemed plausible. The NCAA tournament a likely fantasy.
But six months later, Marshall and the Shockers find themselves back in the NCAA tournament after overcoming much more than the loss of five starters.
The ninth-seeded Shockers will play eighth-seeded Pitt at 1:40 p.m. Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
Replacing five starters was the least of Marshall's worries. Three of the five new starters went down with injuries at various points in the season. One of them, Evan Wessel, the top 3-point shooter when he was injured, is out for the season with a broken finger. Two others missed significant portions of the season with other injuries.
Starter Carl Hall, the top rebounder and second-leading scorer, missed seven games with a broken thumb. Ron Baker, a 6-3 freshman guard, missed 21 games with a stress fracture in his foot but returned for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and scored 29 points in three games.
"We kept finding ways to win," Marshall said. "We kept finding new guys. Our 11th man would become our eighth man. Finding ways to win is very gratifying for a coach."
The Shockers did it with defense and rebounding. They are among the top rebounding and defensive teams in NCAA Division I. They are seventh in rebounding margin (plus-8.4) and 43rd in scoring defense (60.7 points per game).
Pitt is 13th in rebounding margin (plus-7.1) and sixth in scoring defense (55.4 ppg).
"You're going to see two of the most physical and hardest-competing teams in the country," said Bradley coach Geno Ford, a former head coach at Kent State who is very familiar with both programs. "There aren't a lot of teams out there that compete harder than those two teams. Coach [Jamie] Dixon and coach Marshall always have teams that compete on the backboards. There are going to be men's rebounds only in this game. You're going to have to go through traffic to rebound.
"People out there that aren't familiar with Wichita State will be shocked at the size and strength and toughness that they have. You're in a football city, and it will look like a football game. Those two teams will get after it."
Hall, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, and Cleanthony Early, a 6-8 junior forward, are the top two scorers and rebounders for the Shockers, but Marshall also has senior Malcolm Armstead (10.5 ppg, 3.9 apg), Demetric Williams (8.3 ppg) and Baker (7.8 ppg) on the perimeter to form a balanced offensive attack.
The Shockers finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 12-6 record and lost to Creighton in the MVC tournament championship.
"I'm a big fan of Wichita State," said Evansville coach Marty Simmons, who along with Creighton's Greg McDermott were the only two coaches in the MVC to beat the Shockers twice this season. "I think they'd match up pretty well with anyone in the country. Looking at what they've done with five new starters and dealing with their injuries, Gregg and his staff have done a great job.
"Baker, I was watching him in the tournament, he brings a ton to their team now that he's back. He's a tough competitor. They have great size. They have a lot of different lineups. They're a strong defensive team, and they can throw different presses at you to get you out of your rhythm. And Armstead is as good as any point guard I've seen this year."
Pitt beat Wichita State, 68-55, in a 2009 preseason tournament in Kansas City, Mo. Marshall was quick to point out Monday that he had to play that game without his starting point guard due to an eligibility issue. The Shockers played tough, but they could not overcome 24 turnovers and fell to the Panthers, who would go on to finish in second place in the Big East Conference and earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament later that season.
"I don't want to say it's the varsity against the jayvee, but there's a pretty high level of athlete over there and they have great size," Marshall said. "We play very similar styles. It will be an in-your-face defensive battle with both teams trying to gain supremacy on the glass.
"Jamie Dixon is one of the finest coaches in the country. They're known as one of the toughest teams in the country and that's what we pride ourselves on, too."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published March 19, 2013 4:00 AM