Monthly Archives: March 2014

Opening Day questions

This is one of my favorite days of the year. Big league baseball returns. I sit myself down in front of my television for countless games during the spring, summer and fall.

A little secret here: I hope the Kansas City Royals have a good season. It’s fun around here when the Royals are good, I think. I can’t really remember. But I think it’s fun around here when the Royals are good.

That was a joke, people. The Royals were good last season. Just not quite good enough to make the playoffs for the 28th season in a row. Not that I’m counting. But when the Royals win, it makes their fans happy. And when their fans are happy, they talk about baseball. And I love talking about baseball.

So, as I said, I hope the Royals are good this season.

Alright, now on to the St. Louis Cardinals, a team we know is going to be good. At least that’s what everybody is saying.

I prefer to see it actually happen first, but that’s just me.

St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn wins games. He also pouts a lot when he pitches.

St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn wins games. He also pouts a lot when he pitches.

Yes, the Cardinals look good on paper. But as they say, paper is paper and . . . actually, I have no idea what they say because I don’t listen very closely when they’re saying it.

I do generally listen closely to what I say, although not always. But in the case of the Cardinals, I say there are questions to be answered. And here are just a few.

Bullpen – The Cardinals don’t have a long reliever, at least someone specifically set aside for that role. I hope they don’t need a long reliever very often. When a long reliever is in the game, the game is usually over. Still, I worry about it. I also worry that Pat Neshek and Keith Butler have made the team as relief pitchers. I shouldn’t worry this much, I know. And I’m not really worried worried. I’m somewhat concerned. Yeah, that’s it.

Kolten Wong – Wong was abysmal after being called up late last season, hitting well below the Mendoza Line at something I like to call the Lutz Line. Then he got picked off for the last out of a World Series game against Boston. And that time, I denounced Wong much the way American denounces North Korea. But I’m a softie, so I’ve accepted Wong back into the fold and hope he is a productive, even exciting player. He can run. He has some pop in his bat. And he had an outstanding spring training after a slow start. All is forgiven, Kolten. For now. Wong’s backup, newly-acquired Mark Ellis, is beginning the year on the disabled list. So it looks like either Daniel Descalso or Pete Kozma, another Lutz Line kind of hitter, is Wong’s reserve for now.

Lance Lynn – I know Lynn wins games. I know he pitches a lot of innings. He’s a horse, which is what we baseball guys call pitchers who pitch a lot of innings. Although I’ve never seen a horse pitch an inning. I would like to. Anyway, Lynn is a mess when he pitches. He’s emotionally challenged. He reacts to far too many things and often with negativity. I don’t mind being negative myself, but I hate to that trait in people I care about. And because Lynn is a Cardinal, I care about him. I hope he’s matured some this season. I still want the horse innings and all of that, but I could do without the histrionics.

Oscar Taveras – For a couple of years now, we’ve been hearing about what a great outfield prospect Taveras is. But we’ve never seen him play. Taveras literally has not played an inning of a game in professional baseball, yet is considered a top five prospect. OK, that’s a lie. He has played. He played some for Triple-A Memphis last season before the most mysterious ankle injury of all time put him on the disabled list. This ankle injury has lasted for nine months. It didn’t permit Taveras to play much in spring training for the Cardinals this year and he’ll be back in Triple-A. Playing, I assume, although probably not. Taveras doesn’t play. But he’s a great prospect. I know, doesn’t make sense.

Tony Cruz – Cruz is the Cardinals’ backup catcher. He plays about every third week in place of iron man Yadier Molina. Cruz’s parents don’t know he’s in the major leagues. He’s seen less frequently than Oscar Taveras. And let’s hope it stays that way. An injury to Molina would be devastating to the Cardinals. That said, I would like to see Cruz catch a few more games, just so Molina can rest. Molina is 31 now and the wear of tear of catching can be difficult. Not that I know anyone dumb enough to actually become a catcher. I know I turned that opportunity down when I was 8 and that I’ve never looked back on that decision.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great day watching baseball.

 

Friday musings

* I love the NCAA Tournament. Covering it is like living in a commune, with reporters stacked side by side in a media workroom while snacking on varied items, from trail mix to pears. I look around at times and wonder how all of these people got started in this media business, how long they’ve been doing it, whether it still makes them happy . . . these are the things I think about.

* We were served cod for lunch. The NCAA needs to do better than that. However, my friends raved about the cod. So much so that I tried it. Eh. Just OK. I don’t care much for fish or any kind of seafood. My explanation is easy, if confounding. I don’t like to eat things that have been in the water. And fish smell bad because they’ve been in the water. It’s not their fault, really. But I don’t have to eat them.

* I do like shrimp some. Not a lot, just some.

* Yesterday, we were served chicken parmigiana. I enjoy chicken, mostly because chickens don’t reside in the sea. They reside in much worse conditions, probably. But at least they don’t reside in the sea.

* I’ve covered a bunch of NCAA tournaments over the years, writing about Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State. Here’s a list of the cities, with the number of games I’ve covered in those cities. This probably has no meaning to anyone but me. And perhaps my wife. But probably just me.

* New Orleans 7, Oklahoma City 7, San Antonio 6, St. Louis 6, Salt Lake City 4, Omaha 4, Winston-Salem 2, Dayton 2, Madison 2, Kansas City 2, Chicago 2, San Jose 2, Detroit 2, Minneapolis 2, Anaheim 2, Atlanta 2, Wichita 2, Greensboro 2, Los Angeles 2, Tucson 2, Portland 1, Washington D.C. 1. So, 64 games in 22 cities. And I’ll be adding at least three more games this weekend here in St. Louis.

* My favorite NCAA venue is New Orleans and the Superdome. And the city. I’ve had a lot of fun in New Orleans, but who hasn’t? Washington was a blast in 2006, even though Wichita State played only one game there. And I love being in St. Louis, my home away from home. This is a great city, although the traffic has gotten noticeably worse over the years.

* I’m grateful to be covering another NCAA Tournament with my friend, Rick Plumlee. We started at The Eagle at about the same time; I think I have about 10 months on him. Rick was our KU beat writer for 30 years and we’ve been to a bunch of these things together. He’s one of the best journalists I’ve worked with and one of the most interesting people I’ve known.

* Wichita State will have a very interesting game to play Sunday in the tournament, whether it’s against Kentucky or Kansas State. Those two teams play the late game tonight here at the Scottrade Center and either would pose a threat to the Shockers’ unbeaten streak. (Yes, I’m assuming Wichita State gets by Cal Poly today. I think that’s a safe assumption). Kentucky’s size, though, would present the biggest danger to the Shockers. I’ve seen Kansas State play a lot this season and I think Wichita State is just the better team. That doesn’t mean the Wildcats couldn’t give WSU a tough game and perhaps even become the team to stop the Shockers in their tracks. But Wichita State matches up better against K-State than the Shockers do against Kentucky.

* That said, Kentucky has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the country this season. The Wildcats’ performance doesn’t always match their talent level. They have endured distinct and profound growing pains. Wichita State would give away size and talent level in a game against Kentucky. But the Shockers have a big edge in consistency, teamwork and all of the intangibles that help determine the strength of a college basketball team.

* Kentucky, though, is scary. The NCAA Tournament just might be what this young team of future NBA players needed to motivate them. The Wildcats look like the kind of team that, especially in a season with so much parity, could simply light the fuse and exploded through six games. The key is consistency and so far Kentucky has not been able to corral that commodity.

* I’ve been disappointed with The Walking Dead this season. It’s become far too contemplative. I made the statement on Twitter the other day that the show either has or is about to jump the shark. What are your thoughts?

* I’m headed out now to watch some of the New Mexico-Stanford game. I’ll add some more musings later because of popular demand. Which begs the question: Has demand ever been unpopular. Think about that one and I’ll touch base later.

 

Lists, lists, lists

Hello everyone from Room something at the St. Louis Doubletree by Hilton. It was a nice drive over today with my friend, Rick Plumlee, and my son, Jeff Lutz. Jeff is 31 now so he’s also a friend. Somewhat. Although he’s a son first. Those of you with adult children, does that make sense?

Not that I scold the young man still. He’s married, has a 7-year-old and a house. It would be kind of silly to scold him. But I do offer fatherly “advice” at times, which I’m almost 100 percent sure he heeds. Or not.

Anyway, let’s get to a little listing in the hour or so I have until a group of us head out to Zia’s on The Hill for dinner. It’s probably my favorite restaurant in St. Louis. But I don’t have enough favorites to do a list. But I’ll go with a restaurant theme for List No. 1.

Favorite chain restaurants

1. Longhorn Steakhouse

2. Chile’s

3. Outback

4. Applebee’s

5. Old Chicago

10 things I like about St. Louis

1. The Cardinals, of course. I’ve been a fan for over 50 years now. Going on 52, in fact. Wow, I didn’t need to see that number.

2. All of the Cardinals fans here during the summer when a game is being played at Busch Stadium.

3. The Missouri Valley Conference tournament. One of the best in the country. Lots and lots of memories. And a few things forgotten.

4. The Arch. Takes me back to another time and being awestruck as a kid by the magnitude of this landmark.

5. The St. Louis Zoo. I haven’t been in a while. But the setting – Forest Park – is awesome.

6. Budweiser brewery. Who could possibly tire of seeing how beer is made?

7. Laclede’s Landing, although I don’t go down there as much as I did when I was younger. The party animal inside of me has been tamed.

8. Market Street. One of the best downtown streets in America, in my opinion. Not that I know all the streets.

9. Memories of my father. He first brought me to St. Louis for a Cardinals game in 1966. I was 11. We came a few times after that and it was always fun to watch the Cardinals with him. That first trip over was made in a Beech Bonanza and the pilot did loop-de-loops on the way over. I was scared to death.

10. Meeting Stan Musial. My wife and I got to talk to Musial three years ago. He wasn’t in the best of health, but he allowed us to have our picture taken with him. It was a special moment, obviously.

Five favorite muffin flavors

1. Apple cinnamon

2. Blueberry

3. Banana nut

4. Orange

5. Lemon poppyseed

Five careers I might have been good at

1. Baseball executive

2. Play-by-play broadcaster

3. Bus driver (I like buses)

Sorry, I can only think of three and even they are a stretch.

Favorite subjects in school

1. English

2. Journalism

3. Creative writing

Sorry, I can only think of three and even they are a stretch.

Five things I won’t eat

1. Beets

2. Asparagus

3. Catfish

4. Liver

5. Black olives

Five great things about Zia’s, our destination this evening

1. It’s on The Hill

2. The dinner salad is to die for.

3. The service.

4. The tenement style of housing in the neighborhood with houses stacked almost on top of one another. But most are well kept. I can always sense the pride of those who live on The Hill.

5. The dinner salad. There are times when I want to order two.

Have a great day, everyone. I’m looking forward to covering the NCAA Tournament again. It’s one of the best parts of the job.

 

Shocker Invitational recap

What a great time we had with the Shocker Invitational during this basketball season.

It started with picking enough former and current Wichita State players to fill 16 teams. And it was important to do it by position, so the five-man teams were stocked with a center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard.

Eighty players, in all, were on these rosters. And we started playing out the animated tournament on an X-Box gaming system on Feb. 16, playing in two-week intervals. The tournament concluded Sunday and your winner of the Shocker Invitational is . . . drum roll, please . . . Team 9.

That’s Antoine Carr’s team and the Big Dog was fabulous in four tournament games, averaging 31.8 points, 15.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists. We didn’t pick a tournament MVP, but if we had it would have obviously been Carr.

He received a lot of help from former Wichita State guard Paul Guffrovich, who matched Carr’s 33 points in the championship game and averaged 27.3 points per game for the tournament.

Guffrovich was never that kind of scorer at WSU. He was a nice guard with excellent three-point range. But he got on a roll in the Shocker Invitational and remained hot throughout.

Team 9 also included center Darin Miller, who attended every session at Side Pockets, along with forward Robert Gray and point guard Tony Martin.

Team 9 held off Team 13 in the championship game, 89-86. That goodness it was close because there were a few blowouts in the Shocker Invitational. And nobody likes blowouts, not even animated players.

Team 13 was led by P.J. Couisnard, who scored 30 points in the championship-game loss. It also included forward Cheese Johnson, center Ozell Jones and guards Joe Ragland and Randy Burns, the best backcourt duo in the Shocker Invitational.

Team 9 got to the finals with a 94-86 win over Team 5 in the semifinals, despite 38 points from Ron Baker, the only current Wichita State player in the semis. Baker’s teammates included the X-Man, Xavier McDaniel, along with center Ev Wessel and guards Bob Trogele and Terry Hankton.

Team 13 reached the championship game by defeating Team 10, 89-75. Team 10 was led by center Robert Elmore, whose teammates included forwards Ron Harris and Jamar Howard along with guards Ron Mendell and Jimmy Bolden.

The tournament was a lot of fun. Thanks to Derek Pruett, the man with the plan, who input a bunch of performance information on each player into the computer system. And to the man with the idea to play this thing out in animation, Jamin Anderson.

We’re rolling around the idea of doing a similar tournament next season with Kansas. Now that would be a challenge. I’m taking Wilt Chamberlain’s team.

 

Memories of a sports writer (or radio guy)

It’s not like everyone is asking me about my decision this week to leave Sports Daily, effective at the end of Friday’s show on KFH.

But enough are that I wanted to address it briefly in a blog post.

First of all, I’m leaving on my own accord. This is my decision, nobody else’s. And it took a while to make. Simply, doing this show isn’t as enjoyable for me as it once was. I love the medium of radio and hope to return to the airwaves somewhere down the line. Radio fits my caustic, acerbic, sarcastic and all-around sweet personality. It provides for a free flow of ideas and interaction with callers and listeners, which I covet.

Nothing will ever approach the enjoyment of writing for me. But being on radio is fun and something I’m thankful to have been able to do on this show for the past 13 years.

But the time has come to leave. I have a lot going on in my life right now thanks to the success (so far, there’s a long way to go) of League 42, our youth baseball league for kids who deserve the chance, the affordable chance, to play the great game. We’re going to be playing League 42 games soon and this endeavor has become my passion. I’m serving with a lot of great and like-minded people to whom I am dedicated.

I want to spend more time on League 42. I love League 42.

I appreciate everyone who has listened to Sports Daily over the years. It’s been a successful show; I can’t think of another local sports-talk show that’s been on the air for almost 14 years. It was fun working with Bruce Haertl and getting to know all of the people at Entercom radio, where I was able to rub shoulders every day with the likes of Ted Woodward, Steve McIntosh, Jack Oliver, Don Hall, Kim Dugger, Emily Stevens, Heather Larson, Greg (The Hit Man) Williams, Miranda Watkins, Tony Duesing, Brad Hornung, Jeree Short, Cathy Buss, Shane Dennis, Jackie Wise and many, many others. It was a blast.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds. I’ll be back on radio, I believe. But not for a while.

 

VanVleet gets another endorsement

This debate about the worthiness of Wichita State sophomore Fred VanVleet as a point guard, if there is even a debate, is probably the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.

Of course, it’s mostly fueled by one clown with a national platform and by now I don’t need to mention

The 1963-64 Wichita State team is one of the best in Shocker history. Ernie Moore (32) is seated third from the left on the front row.

The 1963-64 Wichita State team is one of the best in Shocker history. Ernie Moore (32) is seated third from the left on the front row.

names.

VanVleet, the critic says, might lack the quickness and foot speed to play with the nation’s elite point guards in the NCAA Tournament. And yada, yada, yada.

When I watch VanVleet play, I see a stone-cold killer. Is he the quickest point guard in America? Probably not. Could he out-run Usain Bolt? My guess is that he couldn’t.

But VanVleet is a tremendous player. He scores when he needs to score. He passes when he needs to pass. He’d be a great DJ at a wedding because he can go up-tempo and he knows just when to slow things down.

The greatest point guard in Wichita State history, in my opinion, is Ernie Moore. He played a long, long time ago, from 1960-64. He’s living now in Kansas City, where he attended Sumner High back in the day, and he pays a lot of attention to the Shockers. And to VanVleet.

And here’s some of what he has to say about the current WSU point guard.

“He’s very, very good,” Moore said. “He controls the game like he’s supposed to. He takes that big shot like he’s supposed to when they bog down a little bit on offense. He takes care of the basketball. He really takes care of the basketball and that’s what I judge  him on the most.”

Moore, who is in his early 70s, would run for president of the Fred VanVleet Fan Club if there was such a thing.

A little background on Moore:

He played for Ralph Miller and averaged 13.2 points during his career. He went into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. Moore was a tremendous floor leader, but assists were not an official statistic when he played so those numbers are missing. Safe to say, though, that passing was among his greatest strengths.

Moore shot 44.7 percent from the field during his career and 75.3 percent at the free-throw line. He also avearaged 3.1 rebounds per game and was every bit as dangerous as a defensive player as he was on offense.

“When I was playing, we really got after you on defense,” Moore said. “We really did because if we didn’t, Ralph would really get after us. That’s what this team does, too. They get after you on defense.”

Moore said he’s amazed by VanVleet’s poise, given that this is his first season as the Shockers’ starter.

“He can really shoot the ball from the outside,” Moore said. “One of the little concerns I had at the beginning of the season was that he was walking the ball up the floor quite a bit. But he doesn’t do that now. You don’t want to play 40 minutes of half-court basketball. You want some easy baskets. No, Fred VanVleet is great.”

Greatness is best defined by the great, right?

Moore said he’s seen about half of Wichita State’s games this season and believes the Shockers can get to another Final Four. He said VanVleet’s leadership is a major reason why.

“It would have been a challenge to have played against him,” Moore said. “He plays in such an off tempo. He marches to the beat of his own drum, really. He can look like he’s not going to score and then he scores and that’s because the guys he’s going against aren’t at the same tempo.”

Moore said he suspects VanVleet is using criticism as motivation, the way he did when he was a Shocker.

“Back in the day, the media rated all the players just like they do now,” Moore said. “When we played against a guy who was rated way up there above me, that made me really want to challenge him. And I think that’s what Fred and Wichita State is going to do. They’re going to prove a point.”

Moore, a retired city worker, said he gives no credence to the notion that the Shockers have played a weak schedule, either.

“I’m not concerned about that at all,” he said. “What I’m concerned about is the Shockers’ play. Have they deviated or changed their play any from the beginning of the season or have they now? Well, I haven’t seen it change on iota. This team can play with anyone.”

 

Lists, lists, lists (Shocker-style)

I’ve vowed to do a bunch of Shocker blogging for the next few weeks, although I almost forgot today. I almost forget a lot of things. Anyway . . .

Here are some Shocker-centric lists to get you through the evening.

Five best Wichita State coaches (reverse order)

5. Eddie Fogler (great tactician, cerebral, two NCAA Tournament appearances in three years, ultimately became tired of recruiting difficulties and left for Vanderbilt in 1989).

4. Gene Smithson (great recruiter who brought some of the most iconic Shockers to Wichita State, players like Antoine Carr, Xavier McDaniel and Cliff Levingston. Lots of other good ones, too.

3. Gene Johnson (had a lot to do with the evolution of the full-court press, some say it was even his creation. Coached from 1928-33 and had a 74-24 record.

2. Gregg Marshall (you heard of him?)

1. Ralph Miller (I still can’t justifiably say Marshall has passed Miller as the greatest coach in Wichita State history. But it’s a race now and Marshall is coming up fast. In fact, if the Shockers make a good run in the NCAA Tournament coming up, Marshall probably takes over this distinction in my mind.)

Five best things about the Koch Arena experience

1. Sitting next to my friend Ted Woodward and the cynicism that ensues. We’ve been next to one another for most of the past 15 years, at least. Always a good time. Ted, if you didn’t know, is funny.

2. Working in tandem with Shocker beat writer Paul Suellentrop, one of the very easiest guys I’ve ever worked with. He pretty much signs off on every angle I want to take. Perhaps that’s because my angles are bad. But I don’t think so. I just think Paul is considerate.

3. The Kiss Cam, of course.

4. Shocker Sound. I’ve had my go-rounds with the WSU pep band over the years. I think some new material is called for. But no one can argue with the talent.

5. The Barn’rds pre-game ham and cheese sandwich. I love Barn’rds and the Hertel family, which owns the business. Never, ever get tired of the ham and cheese.

6. (bonus choice) The games are always a lot of fun, too. Great atmosphere, belongs in the discussion as best in the country.

10 favorite Shockers from my youth

1. Dave Stallworth

2. Warren Armstrong

3. Kelly Pete

4. Jamie Thompson

5. Robert Elmore

6. Cheese Johnson

7. Neil Strom

8. Dave Leach

9. Terry Benton

10. Calvin Bruton

Best WSU memories

1. Being with my stoic father, who was a big Shocker fan but didn’t really show it during games.

2. Watching radio broadcaster Gus Grebe’s histrionics during games.

3. Seeing great players – both with the Shockers and on opposing teams – throughout my youth.

4. As a reporter and columnist, covering the team I loved so much as a kid. It’s surreal to have reported on a Final Four season followed up with a 34-0 start. Shocker fever is at an all-time high.

5. The smoke-filled haze that used to rise to the top of the Roundhouse before smoking in the arena was disallowed.

Thanks for reading. Back with another blog or two tomorrow.

 

 

Always remember Jim Schaus

Wichita State should erect a statue of Jim Schaus.

And I’m not kidding.

Jim Schaus made two terrific hires to stabilize the basketball fortunes at Wichita State.

Jim Schaus made two terrific hires to stabilize the basketball fortunes at Wichita State.

The Shockers’ basketball program was headed nowhere fast when Schaus took over as athletic director in 1999. And he went out and found the solution for the program’s ills by hiring Mark Turgeon away from Jacksonville State.

When Turgeon left in 2007 after seven mostly-successful seasons to coach at Texas A&M, Schaus pursued Gregg Marshall, then the coach at Winthrop. And he bagged him.

Schaus hit two grand slams, and the first came as the Shockers were facing total irrelevance.

Remember, Wichita State was 127-188 during the 11 seasons preceding the Turgeon hire. The Shockers couldn’t get out of their own way. The decision to give Mike Cohen the coaching job after Eddie Fogler left for Vanderbilt after the 1988-89 season remains as one of the worst in Shocker athletics history.

Cohen, an assistant on Fogler’s staff, simply wasn’t ready for the job. And the program went downhill fast.

After four seasons, Cohen was fired and Scott Thompson was hired away from Rice. It looked like a good move because the Owls were making some noise as a basketball program, which had rarely happened before.

But Thompson, despite being one of the best guys I’ve ever been around, could not connect with players. Wichita State continued to spin its wheels, rarely winning a road game and playing for a fan base that was becoming more apathetic with every defeat.

Finally, after an 8-21 season in 1995-96, Thompson was fired by athletic director Bill Belknap, a congenial sort who lacked the connections to make an insightful hire.

So he went for the safe hire, bringing Shocker favorite son Randy Smithson over from Butler Community College to coach the Shockers.

Smithson was a standout player on some of the best and most exciting WSU teams ever during the early 1980s. He was plucky and engaging and highly successful at the junior college level. That apathetic fan base welcomed Smithson with open arms.

And then they waited. And waited. And waited some more. Wichita State basketball improved under Smithson. The Shockers became essentially a .500 team. But that’s where it ended.

Smithson encountered issues with his two best players, Maurice Evans and Jason Perez. Evans eventually transferred to Texas. And Schaus, in his first major act as AD, decided to replace Smithson after the 1999-2000 season.

He went and hired Turgeon, a former point guard at Kansas. You may have heard about what most Shocker fans think of Kansas.

But Turgeon started to win over the Shockers’ fan base with an outstanding recruiting class that included Randy Burns, Jamar Howard, Rob Kampman and Paul Miller. They would become the backbone of a team that would ultimately go from 15-15 in Turgeon’s second season to 19-12, 21-11 and 22-10. In 2005-06, the Shockers broke through to the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to George Mason.

Turgeon was a hero. But he may have stayed one year too long.

The Shockers started the 2006-07 season with nine straight wins and vaulted into the upper echelon of the national rankings. Then the bottom fell out, starting with two losses in a tournament in Las Vegas and continuing the rest of the season. WSU lost 14 of its last 22 games and Turgeon left after the season for the riches of Texas A&M.

Schaus had been impressed two seasons earlier with the coaching style of Marshall at Winthrop. He had seen Marshall up close during the NCAA Tournament’s first- and second-round at Greensboro, N.C., where the Shockers had also been sent. And like good athletic directors do, he filed away that impression for another day.

Marshall’s success at WSU followed a similar path to that of Turgeon. The Shockers were bad in Marshall’s first season (11-20), then became much better in his second year, going 17-17.

In 2009-10, Marshall’s third season, the team took off, winning 25 games. Then 29 and an NIT championship, 27 and an NCAA Tournament appearance and 30 with a spot in the Final Four.

And now, in Marshall’s seventh season, Wichita State is 34-0 and likely headed for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

Somewhere, Jim Schaus, who left WSU in 2008 to become athletic director at Ohio, is smiling. And Shocker fans should be smiling back while down on their knees. He rescued Wichita State basketball by hiring two outstanding coaches. That should never be forgotten.

 

Shockers special for more than wins

It’s easy to be popular when you’re 34-0. And Wichita State’s basketball team is definitely popular, as the 7,500 or so Shocker fans who made the trek over to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this weekend prove.

This is a fun team to watch. Wichita State is talented and focused. The Shockers are fundamentally sound

Indiana State senior guard Jake Odum tries to get past the Shockers' Ron Baker during Sunday's MVC tournament championship game in St. Louis.

Indiana State senior guard Jake Odum tries to get past the Shockers’ Ron Baker during Sunday’s MVC tournament championship game in St. Louis.

and balanced. They have all the things outstanding sports team possess.

But beyond that, this is just a good group of guys. There’s not one sourpuss in the group and if anything can bring the sour out in a puss, it’s the media with our endless and repetitive questions.

Like everyone who saw it and has since heard about it, I was so impressed with the Shockers’ treatment of Indiana State senior guard Jake Odum on Sunday during the tournament championship game at the Scottrade Center.

Odum left the game late, when the outcome had been decided, to the cheers of the 1,000 or so Indiana State fans in the venue. It was a nice moment that was about to get nicer because of the Shockers.

Sophomores Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet began to applaud for Odum. Baker took it a step farther, following the Sycamores guard toward the Indiana State bench and raising his arms as a signal to the throng of Shocker fans that they should be applauding and cheering for Odum, too.

And that’s what happened. Odum left not only to an ovation from the home fans who have been following him for four years, but also to appreciative Wichita State fans who were reminded by young people just beyond their teenage years what sportsmanship is all about.

It was a fantastic moment and the Shocker players deserve credit for making it special. Not that they would want the attention because that’s not what this team is all about.

Baker and VanVleet are simply good people who happen to be outstanding basketball players. Without basketball, they would go far in life. With it, who knows their limit.

After the game, Baker was asked about his salute to Odum and his answer was genuine.

“That kid right there is a very special kid,” Baker said. “He’s had a really strong four years at his university.  He’s put up very special numbers.  He’s made history there. I’m just sad for his fans to see him not accomplish what he was trying to accomplish, but right there, I was just trying to give him some love because he deserved it.  He played a hard game.”

I’m always willing to learn from people, even people who are three years out of high school. How many  adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s would have had to wherewithal in that moment, when your team is about to go to 34-0 and win a tournament the Shockers hadn’t won in 27 years, to show that kind of respect for an opposing player.

And it wasn’t just Baker. VanVleet was doing the same thing. So were other Wichita State players. And they weren’t prompted by Shocker coach Gregg Marshall or any of his assistants. It came directly from their understanding of what it takes to be a competitor and having respect for the guy you competed against.

Beyond the game and the victory and the championship, the sportsmanship stood out most. It was one of the best moments of an incredible season. And it, like all of the wins and celebrations, should be remembered.

 

Friday musings

* It’s always fun to cover the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. But I was just talking to Wichita State beat writer about how difficult it is, at times, to write about this Wichita State basketball team.

* All the games are looking the same. One lopsided win after another. This is a fantastic team, obviously, so there are always going to be good stories to tell. But as a columnist, an opinion-writer, it’s not easy to find flaws. And you know me; I love flaws.

* Evansville guard D.J. Balentine is the real deal, one of the best players to come along in the Valley in a while. Of course, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who played three seasons in the MVC before the Bluejays bolted for the Big East this season, is the star of stars in the recent past. But Balentine is an incredible offensive player with unlimited shooting range. The best thing is that he has two years remaining. I suppose that might not be the best thing for the rest of the Valley, although this league needs every good player it can get at the moment.

* As usual, I drove around Busch Stadium as I was getting into town last night with my wife. We saw the ongoing construction of Ballpark Village, just to the west of the stadium. It’s going to be a fantastic venue and I’m told the Cardinals are sparing no expense when it comes to the Cardinals Hall of Fame, which will be housed inside Ballpark Village. Can’t wait to get back to St. Louis for a game this summer.

* I peruse every spring training box score for the Cardinals. That’s just the way I am. Today, young second baseman Kolten Wong had three hits. That’s significant because of the way Wong, a former No. 1 draft pick, struggled after being called up from Triple-A last season and because he had been having a terrible spring so far. Good for him. I have faith.

* I can’t wait for the finale of True Detective on Sunday night. That show started slow, but it hasn’t disappointed. How could any cast with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson disappoint? Now, that being said, this hasn’t been the easiest show to follow. I feel like I needed to go back and watch each episode again, maybe three times. But I’m hanging in there for the conclusion.

* Poor John Travolta.

* Back to the Shockers for a moment. We’re really going to learn a lot about this team when they play their second game in the NCAA Tournament, likely as a 1-seed vs. the 8-9 winner. There isn’t a Valley opponent that comes even close to being an 8-9, so that will be the best team Wichita State has faced in a long time, perhaps all season.

* I made a big personal decision this week. Personal decisions are very difficult for me. I’m trained to see both sides of every story.

* I’m looking forward to getting out to some state tournament high school basketball next week. Although I know the lack of a shot clock will frustrate me. Basketball is now played with a shot clock. It’s that simple. For high school hoops to continue with the status quo antiquates and downgrades the sport. Personally, I would go with a 35-second shot clock, the same as exists in men’s college basketball.

* America has been at war since 9/11. I just wanted to remind everyone of that fact. Do with it what you want. I’m not implying that these conflicts are unjustified or unwarranted. But I remember a time when we were at peace with the world and it’s sad that those days are gone. I hope they’re not gone forever, but I have my doubts.

* Yes, I know I’m a lowly sports writer and that I should never give an opinion on anything serious. Forgive me, please.

* I want to go to Zia’s tonight for dinner, but it’s Friday and the wait will be long. So we may try to get there for a very early lunch tomorrow before Wichita State’s 1:30 p.m. game against Missouri State in the Valley tournament semifinals. I do not anticipate a close game, by the way. The Shockers have proven everything they need to prove in this conference this season. There will be no major upset or miracle in St. Louis this weekend.

* I turned 59 this week. I wanted to type that number and stare at it for a few minutes. It’s such a crooked number, isn’t it? OK, I’m done staring.

* The NCAA is going to be a complete crap-shoot this year. I can’t wait. It’s going to be one of the most fascinating tournaments of all-time. In his latest Bracketology on ESPN, Joe Lunardi still has Wichita State as a 1-seed in the Midwest region. The next 13 seeds are: Wisconsin, Creighton, Louisville, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona State, Baylor, Colorado, either Nebraska or Arkansas, Southern Miss, Stephen F. Austin and Belmont. How loaded is that? And remember that key 1 vs. 8-9 game I mentioned earlier? In this case, the Shockers would face the Arizona State-Baylor winner. Not easy at all.

* Frank Martin has been suspended by South Carolina, where he coaches basketball, for verbally attacking one of his players during a timeout. Hmm, where have we heard this before? Listen, Martin is a profane man and guess what? South Carolina’s administration knew that when it hired Martin to take over its men’s basketball program. Martin requires his bosses to swallow hard. When his team wins, as it did at Kansas State, the end can justify the means. Maybe. For a while. But South Carolina isn’t winning and Martin is in his second season. I wish he would tone it down. I’ve always wished he would tone it down. Because he’s not a bad guy. But he comes across as one on television when he’s doing his job and it doesn’t take a fan base or an administration long to grow tired of that.

* Thanks for reading, everyone. I always appreciate it. Gonna hit the town here in St. Louis until, oh, about 7:30. I’m a wild man.

 

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