By Dave Skretta
ARLINGTON, Texas: Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is growing accustomed to being center stage at the Final Four. He just wishes his team was with him this time around.
After leading the Shockers to the national semifinals a year ago, Marshall deftly guided them through a perfect regular season, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were done in by Kentucky in the third round, but by then the votes had already been tabulated.
Marshall was the runaway winner of the AP coach of the year award.
He accepted his hardware during a news conference Thursday at AT&T Stadium, where the Wildcats will play Wisconsin and UConn will meet Florida in the national semifinals Saturday night.
“I’m truly honored,” Marshall said. “It’s amazing what our young guys and our program were able to accomplish this year, with the tremendous win streak and the run they took us all on. I’ve been coaching for a long time, but when you have a group like this, they make it really special.”
Speaking of special, Creighton star Doug McDermott was a near-unanimous pick as the AP player of the year after a senior season that left him the fifth-leading scorer in Division I history.
McDermott received all but one vote from the 65-member panel that votes for the Top 25. Russ Smith of Louisville received the only dissenting vote.
“This is a huge honor,” said McDermott, who was joined at the news conference by his father, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, along with his mother and sister.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” McDermott said. “It has been a great four years.”
The award ceremony was also a reunion for Marshall and McDermott, who became familiar with each other when Wichita State and Creighton tussled for Missouri Valley supremacy.
But when the Bluejays skipped to the Big East, it cleared the way for Marshall’s Shockers to romp through a weakened league and have one of the finest seasons in Division I history.
Wichita State won its first 35 games, a record for a men’s major college program, and became the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record since UNLV in 1991. With his motto of “play angry,” the Shockers embodied the intense nature of their blue-collar coach, who came up through tiny schools such as Randolph-Macon to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
Along the way, the Shockers captured their first Missouri Valley tournament title since 1987 and landed forward Cleanthony Early and point guard Fred VanVleet on the AP’s All-America teams.
“I tell you what, they made it easy to coach,” Marshall told AP. “You enjoy going to work every single day. Even with the loss to Kentucky, they never wavered. They wanted to be a special group, and they wanted to do things that have never been done.”
That loss to the Wildcats still stings, though. The heavyweights from the SEC were given a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning Wichita State had to face them in the opening weekend, and the two teams waged a thrilling game that came down to VanVleet’s missed shot at the buzzer.
“Ultimately, some point down the road, we’ll look back on this season, and look back fondly,” Marshall said, “but at this point, gosh, I wish we were still playing.”
Marshall received 44 votes for coach of the year. Tony Bennett of Virginia got 13, followed by Florida’s Billy Donovan with six and Michigan’s John Beilein and SMU’s Larry Brown with one each.
There wasn’t nearly as much indecision in voting for McDermott, who led the Bluejays to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And while their season ended in a loss to Baylor, it was only a blip on an otherwise remarkable career that left his proud pop feeling nostalgic.
“It’s hard to believe on a lot of levels,” Greg McDermott told AP. “As his father, I still see him as a little scrawny kid in a lot of ways.”
One that blossomed into a dynamic, 6-foot-8 forward who led the nation in scoring at nearly 27 points per game and finished with a staggering 3,150 for his career.
“I knew Doug was going to be player of the year much sooner than I thought I could be coach of the year,” Marshall said. “He can certainly play on any level and he proved that this year.”