Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall was sitting courtside in Salt Lake City three years ago, watching top-seeded Gonzaga and brainstorming. Marshall and his Shockers would face the Bulldogs, an intimidating opponent in an unfamiliar venue, in a little more than 48 hours.
Hours earlier, the ninth-seeded Shockers had pounded Pittsburgh by 18 points in the NCAA tournament’s opening round, thanks in part to Marshall and his staff wisely choosing to limit the Panthers’ perimeter offense.
Now watching Gonzaga struggle to put away tiny Southern University, the West Regional’s No. 16 seed, Marshall realized he would deploy an entirely different approach than the one that had toppled Pittsburgh. Gonzaga, the Shockers coach decided, was talented but psychologically fragile. He saw an opportunity.
“Holy moly: If [Southern] can do this, we can do it,” Marshall recently recalled thinking, looking back on the moment he realized Gonzaga would be susceptible to a physical, fearless attack in the teams’ round-of-32 contest.
Sure enough, Marshall’s adjustment worked and would continue working — past Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State, all dramatically different opponents — all the way to the Final Four. The Shockers’ surprising run elevated Marshall’s status as one of college basketball’s best tournament coaches. Marshall now resides among a revered group that includes Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Miami’s Jim Larranaga, former Florida Coach Billy Donovan and, more recently, former Butler Coach Brad Stevens and first-year Texas Coach Shaka Smart. Those coaches, like a politician on the primary trail, seem to thrive amid the absence of time and sleep, pivoting from one message to the next as the environment changes, the climate intensifies and opponents fade.
“Some coaches,” former Maryland Coach Gary Williams said, “seem to get their message through better than other coaches do. … They have this confidence that gets into their team.”
Almost a year ago, Michigan State and Izzo strolled into Charlotte as the East Region’s No. 7 seed. This was hardly Izzo’s finest collection of talent, but somehow there was a palpable confidence about the coach and his team. An upset or two seemed like a foregone conclusion — because, after all, this was Izzo and this was a tournament.
Like Marshall had done two years earlier, Izzo attacked Georgia in the first round and dragged second-seeded Virginia into a sloppy, low-scoring affair in which, for the second consecutive March, Izzo outdueled the Cavaliers and Coach Tony Bennett. A week later, the Spartans beat Louisville to reach an improbable Final Four — Izzo’s seventh.
“You can prepare all you want [against the Spartans], but they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” said Teddy Dupay, the former Florida point guard whose own team overachieved during the 2000 NCAA tournament before running into Izzo’s Spartans in the national championship game. “We were ready. They were ready too, though. They sort of steamrolled us.”
If Izzo is the master, navigating the March assault of surprise opponents and unusual travel and psychological tests to win 73 percent of his NCAA tournament games, Donovan was among his peers. The Gators coach had, as a point guard and later an assistant under Rick Pitino — another coach seemingly comfortable in a tournament setting — learned to thrive in a high-pressure setting that can overwhelm less nimble coaches. Donovan, already an organized coach, somehow became even sharper when conference tournaments began, former assistant Larry Shyatt said. He liked to schedule tough non-conference opponents during the regular season, volunteered his team for challenging road trips, and preferred to test the Gators in early-season tournaments — anything to simulate the grind of the NCAA bracket.
“What kind of preparation could we prescribe to our guys: ‘Hey, we’re there. We’ve been through this,’” said Shyatt, now head coach at Wyoming.
Before the Gators’ opening-round game, two of Donovan’s assistants had already been assigned to scout each potential opponent in the round of 32. If Florida survived, the assistant who had scouted the winning opponent was back at the team hotel by the time Donovan sat down for his post-game news conference, Shyatt said, often alongside support staffers to cut video of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and establish the beginnings of a game plan. Donovan and the remaining coaching staff would join them, usually in a hotel room and surrounded by takeout boxes and “adult beverage” containers, according to Shyatt. Donovan would fire questions and imagine scenarios into the wee hours — until he was satisfied their design would give the Gators a chance to win.
“He’s not going to bed,” Shyatt said, “until he’s comfortable where we’re at.”
Players, Dupay said, wouldn’t turn their attention to the next opponent until after breakfast the next morning. Donovan’s players could rest; his assistants could not. After practice, the coaches’ ideas coming to life, Donovan liked to refresh his team’s motivation — he once brought in Bill Belichick to address his team; another time he showed the Gators the legendary Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight bout — before sealing a hotel ballroom for a walk-through, his team almost afraid of losing.
“There’s nothing lonelier,” Shyatt said, “than when you’re done.”
Ten years ago, with fear or ambition or something else driving the third-seeded Gators, Donovan attacked South Alabama, withstood Wisconsin-Milwaukee, survived Georgetown and blasted Villanova to reach the Final Four. Florida was too much for 11th-seeded George Mason and then-Patriots Coach Larranaga (who could have another interesting tournament run ahead in 2016 with his new team in Miami) and routed UCLA to win the 2006 national title. A year later, Donovan’s Gators tore through the tournament to repeat as champions. Before leaving Gainesville last year to take over the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, Donovan won nearly 75 percent of his NCAA tournament games.
His secret, former point guard Dupay said, was a strong staff, a commitment to being organized and — perhaps most important — somehow knowing “exactly what his team needs” to prepare for each game.
That was a knack Marshall seemed to share three years ago, when Wichita State reached the Final Four. Now, with the Shockers on the tournament bubble, he spent last week wondering about the possibilities and matchups, the brainstorms and the battles, seeing — as he did in his courtside seat in 2013 — only opportunity.
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