Gregg Marshall and his Merry Band of Misfits

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ATLANTA — Sitting on a chair in his locker in the far corner of Wichita State’s locker room, Ron Baker must have been thankful that he wasn’t claustrophobic. He was surrounded by reporters — print, TV, internet — from across the country, blockaded by a swarm of video cameras, bright lights, recorders and iPhones that were shoved in his face for 25 minutes. Baker was peppered with questions, the topics ranging everywhere from playing against Russ Smith to his hometown in Kansas to … what the Easter holiday means for someone of Catholic faith.

Seriously.

He was asked what Easter means to him.

At the Final Four.

And Baker handled it all like a pro, calmly, intelligently and succinctly answering every question he was asked, mixing in enough small-town, Midwestern charm to win over reporters and blind them to the fact that the majority of what he said was typical press conference generality. If you didn’t know any better, you never would have guessed that Baker was a redshirt freshmen at a school that didn’t win a league title in the Missouri Valley who opted to walk-on for a year instead of go to Junior College or accept a Division II scholarship.

“My AAU coach was at Coffeyville [CC in Kansas] at the time, and that was my second option if Wichita State didn’t give me the opportunity to pay my first year,” Baker said.

“It’s definitely overwhelming. If I looked back two years ago and you told me I’d be sitting here, I’d probably call you crazy. It’s been a good trip for me and my family and everybody back home. They’re extremely excited.”

And why shouldn’t they be? Towns like Scott City, KS, population 3,800, don’t often send players to the Final Four. But it’s those small-town roots that make Baker’s path to this stage all the more impressive. His high school graduating class was 55 kids. Scott City has two stop lights. The reason he wasn’t recruited by bigger schools? They didn’t know about him. So imagine where he would be if his family had never moved to Scott City from Utica, KS.

“It’s about 50 miles northeast of Scott City,” Baker said. “Population about 280 people.”

The best part about this Wichita State team is that Baker may not even have the best story.

Carl Hall, their 24 year old starting power forward, suffers from a heart condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope. He’s passed out three times on the court, and that forced him away from the game. Instead of chasing his dream, Hall was working the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at a lighting company. He painted light-bulbs for 12 bucks-an-hour before going to school during the day and, finally, taking a nap at night before heading back to the factory.

“I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody,” Hall said. “It was just a hot, nasty job. I tell them every day to stay in school and do they work.”

That lasted for two years. Finally, doctors told Hall that his medication had started to work and he would be able to resume playing the game he loved. He wound up at Wichita State after going to a JuCo, but it was still difficult for him to resume. On the one hand, he had to learn to trust his heart again. “Once you pass out you,” Hall told reporters in LA, “you don’t want to go through that situation again.” That made it difficult for him to get in shape, and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall found it difficult to push Hall.

That’s understandable. He once watched a kid he was recruiting die on the court during a game due to a heart condition. When you see that happen once, it makes it a lot harder to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to push a kid beyond his limit.

But Hall persevered, averaging 22.3 minutes as a sixth-man as a junior and more than 28 minutes per game asa  senior.

“I remember like yesterday telling one of the workers that I wanted to start playing basketball, try to pursue my dream, try to play in March Madness one day,” Hall said.

Hall’s here, and if that wasn’t enough, he’ll be playing a car ride from his hometown of Cochran, GA. “I grew up an hour and a half from here,” he said, “and I’ve never been to the Dome.”

It’s the stories of guys like Hall and Baker that make the Shockers so likeable. Wichita State — a No. 9 seed, a team that couldn’t win a title this season in the Missouri Valley, a team with losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois and got swept by Evansville — wasn’t supposed to beat Gonzaga and Ohio State and make it to Atlanta. Ron Baker and Carl Hall aren’t supposed to be recognizable names. They’re not supposed to be giving interview after interview to the biggest media outlets in the country.

And those two are not alone.

Malcolm Armstead has played at three different colleges during his career. After leaving Oregon as a junior, he redshirted and worked at a car dealership part-time to pay his tuition. “Sometimes I had to leave practice to go to work to be able to make money,” Armstead said. Cleanthony Early played at Division III Sullivan Community College before heading to Wichita. Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College. Kadeem Coleby is a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette that is from the Bahamas. Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins are from Canada, and Wiggins making the Final Four isn’t even the biggest story in his family. He’s the older brother of the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Andrew Wiggins.

The Shockers embody the underdog story, Marshall’s Merry Band of Misfits. And somehow, despite having a locker room full of pieces that didn’t fit somewhere else, the Shockers have made it work.

“A lot of people probably think I wouldn’t fit in with these guys,” Baker said with a laugh. “There’s a bunch of crazy men on this team.”

The craziest part is that they are now someplace no one ever thought they would be: 24 hours away from playing in the Final Four.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Five-star point guard decommits from Arizona

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The scope and ramifications of the investigation by the FBI into corruption in college basketball remains an unknown.Who will be ensnared, what programs will be impacted and how the sport as a whole will cope are all pressing questions that will likely unfold over weeks, months and maybe years.

In the short-term, though, the fallout is already being felt.

Arizona lost the commitment Thursday of five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, he announced via social media.

“After careful consideration, my family and I have determined it is in my best interest to retract my verbal commitment to The University of Arizona,”  Quinerly posted to Twitter. “I’d like to thank my extended family and fans for your continued love and support. Your positivity and kindness never goes unnoticed.”

While Quinerly didn’t address the investigation, it’s easy to draw a line from the arrest and eventual firing of Arizona assistant Book Richardson and Quinerly’s decision. Quinerly is believed to be the player referenced in federal court documents that was on the receiving end of money Richardson took from agents, according to the Arizona Republic.

What’s next for Quinerly will certainly be worth watching. How seriously will other schools pursue him? Will he opt to just go overseas and bypass the NCAA – and any investigations it may launch – all together?

Quinerly is not the first recruit to alter his plans in the wake of the investigation. USC, which also had an assistant coach (Tony Bland) arrested, lost the commitment of J’Raan Brooks last weekend.

The dominos of this investigation are sure to continue to fall. Just how many remains one of the many questions that will only be answered in time.

Illinois adds five-star guard

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The first commit for Illinois in 2018 is a significant in state addition.

Ayo Dosunmu, a top-30 guard from Chicago, announced Thursday that he’s staying in the Land of Lincoln and joining Brad Underwood’s Illini program.

“We know that I could only attend one school. After great thought and consideration,” Dosunmu wrote before posting a picture of him in an Illini jersey.

The 6-foot-4 Dosunmu averaged more than 23 points per game in the EYBL last summer for the Mac Irvin Fire while shooting 47.8 percent from the field. His decision to stay home and attend Illinois is a huge win for Underwood ahead of his first season in Champaign. Chicago is no easy place to recruit, but if Underwood can establish that pipeline, it would go a long way in bringing the Illini back to the top of the Big 10.

“I can come in and play in front of my home state,” Dosunmu told Rivals. “I want to do it for my home state and become the first five-star recruit to play for my state in a long time. I just want to start a new trend.“I know somebody would have to eventually do it.

“A team is never bad for so long. Just look at the Chicago Cubs; they were bad for 100 years but eventually they won the World Series. I just want to help start something new.”

Duke is No. 1 in the Preseason Coaches Poll once again

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The first Coaches Poll of the season was released on Thursday as Duke is the No. 1 team for the second consecutive season. Despite overhauling the roster with new freshmen talent, the Blue Devils received 20 first-place votes while Michigan State, Arizona and Florida also drew first-place consideration.

The top five isn’t too much of a surprise, although Florida getting a No. 1 vote while finishing at No. 7 in the poll is a bit puzzling. For a mid-major team, Oakland also received a considerable amount of votes just outside of the top 25.

  1. Duke (20 first place votes)
  2. Michigan State (9)
  3. Kansas
  4. Kentucky
  5. Arizona (2)
  6. Villanova
  7. Florida (1)
  8. Wichita State
  9. North Carolina
  10. West Virginia
  11. USC
  12. Miami
  13. Cincinnati
  14. Notre Dame
  15. Minnesota
  16. Louisville
  17. Xavier
  18. UCLA
  19. Gonzaga
  20. Northwestern
  21. Purdue
  22. St. Mary’s
  23. Seton Hall
  24. Baylor
  25. Alabama

Others receiving votes: Texas A&M 76; Virginia 57; Butler 43; Missouri 35; TCU 32; Rhode Island 31; Providence 21; Wisconsin 21; Maryland 20; Oakland 19; Oklahoma 19; Michigan 13; Texas 13; Virginia Tech 12; Oregon 12; Southern Methodist 6; Creighton 6; Georgia 3; Georgia Tech 3; Harvard 2; Arkansas 2; Florida State 1; South Carolina 1; Nevada 1.

SoCon Preview: Can Furman take over an unpredictable league?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SoCon.

The SoCon has been one of the most unpredictable conferences in college hoops over the last several years. Last season saw a three-way tie for first place in the regular season and the conference saw its third unique NCAA tournament representative in three years. This season should be wild as well as the SoCon has many of the nation’s elite three-point shooters returning.

Furman has a new head coach as Bob Richey was promoted to take over for Niko Medved (Drake) as he inherits a strong roster that won 23 games and tied for first last season. Four starters return for the Paladins, including senior guard and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley along with double-figure scorer Daniel Fowler. If Furman can get more interior help for its guard-heavy team then they could be the team to beat.

Returning the top seven scorers from a 20-win team, Samford has a lot of positive momentum in head coach Scott Padgett’s third season. Senior Demetrius Denzel-Dyson is one of the league’s most versatile talents as he’s joined by three more returning double-figure scorers. UNC Greensboro loses some firepower from a 25-win NIT team but junior sharpshooter Francis Alonso returns along with a good amount of interior depth. Replacing point guard Diante Baldwin could be key.

Five senior starters are back for Mercer including the dynamic backcourt duo of Ria’n Holland and Jordan Strawberry. Small forward Demetre Rivers also returns along with the frontcourt of Desmond Ringer and Stephon Jelks. The Bears have a lot of size but they need to improve defensively. East Tennessee State was the league’s autobid last season but the Buccaneers lose six dynamic seniors from that group. Guard Desonta Bradford is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer while junior college transfer forward Jeromy Rodriguez has a lot of hype as a scorer.

Wofford could be an intriguing team to watch as junior scorer Fletcher Magee leads the backcourt. Junior forward Cameron Jackson also returns as the Terriers have the personnel to either play a perimeter-oriented attack or more of a traditional lineup. Good news for Western Carolina as all five starters are back from last season’s team. But the Catamounts struggled to a 9-win season as the offense only shot 39 percent from the floor. Haboubacar Mutombo, nephew of Dikembe Mutombo, headlines the returning core.

The Citadel should continue to play fast as double-figure scorers like junior forward Zane Najdawi and sophomore gunner Preston Parks return.  New head coach Lamont Paris comes from Wisconsin to Chattanooga, and he doesn’t have any starters coming back from a 19-win team. Junior big man Makinde London showed promise as a role player last season for the Mocs. VMI lost its top three scorers from a young roster. Senior forward Armani Branch is the team’s only returning starter.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devin Sibley, Furman

The reigning SoCon Player of the Year, the 6-foot-2 Sibley was a big-time scorer for Furman last season. Putting up 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, Sibley’s efficiency stood out. Shooting 52 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three-point range, Sibley rarely takes a bad shot.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOCON TEAM

  • Ria’n Holland, Mercer: With 11 20-point games last season, this 6-foot, 152-pound senior is small but he packs a powerful scoring punch.
  • Francis Alonso, UNC Greensboro: A lethal perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-3 junior hit 102 triples at a 46 percent clip last season while putting up 14.9 points per game.
  • Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Samford: Capable of playing multiple spots, the 6-foot-5 senior averaged 16.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from three-point.
  • Fletcher Magee, Wofford: The 6-foot-4 junior averaged 18.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last season while shooting 42 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free-throw line.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SoConSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Furman
  2. Samford
  3. UNC Greensboro
  4. Mercer
  5. ETSU
  6. Wofford
  7. Western Carolina
  8. Chattanooga
  9. The Citadel
  10. VMI

Colorado State’s Eustachy says Paul Weir has ‘worst job in the country’ at New Mexico

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New Mexico coach Paul Weir just landed his new job in April but Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy already believes that Weir has, “the worst job in the country.”

Speaking to reporters, including the Albuquerque Journal’s Geoff Grammer, at Mountain West preseason media day in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the outspoken Eustachy criticized Weir’s lack of pay at New Mexico for the amount of pressure he is dealing with.

“I think he’s got the worst job in the country,” Eustachy said of Weir. “I just told him that. It doesn’t pay enough. If I got paid $5 million, I’d take all that crap that you get in Albuquerque, but he doesn’t make enough money. But that place is different, as you know. It’s a different beast.”

As noted by Grammer, Eustachy once called the New Mexico job one of the best in the sport before previous head coach, and Eustachy’s friend, Craig “Noodles” Neal took the job. But after Neal’s exit from the Lobos and the way the New Mexico fanbase soured on Craig’s son, Cullen, Eustachy has taken a different course. He believes Weir isn’t making nearly enough money to deal with that kind of potential hostility.

“It’s a great job if you’re making $2 million, what they were going to give Steve Alford, but what they pay (Weir), no,” Eustachy said.

Alford is now at UCLA after leaving New Mexico in the spring of 2013. Before he ultimately went to the Bruins, Alford signed a 10-year term sheet with New Mexico for around $1.8 million per year. Before his recent firing, Neal had elevated his contract to $950,000 annually after making $750,000 in his first season. Weir will only make $625,000 to coach his first season in New Mexico after signing a six-year deal.

Eustachy believes New Mexico has one of the great fanbases in college basketball but the group will also turn quickly if things start to go wrong.

“You might get one mulligan in that town, and that’s before you do the press conference,” Eustachy said of New Mexico fans. “You know how that town works. I think it’s great on one end. Name them? You’ve got Lexington, Kentucky, you’ve got Syracuse, N.Y., you’ve got Duke, and New Mexico is in that 10. … And the jobs you name that are going in that 10, those guys are making $8 million and Noodles was making ($950,000). To succeed there, with the expectations that come with it, it’s rare to survive that thing. You know that.

“Can you imagine Alford, if he was still making $2 million and he had a couple bad years there, what it would do? And it’s neat that they’re that much into it, but there’s got to be something else besides basketball in Albuquerque because it is a religion there.”

Some strong words from Eustachy in this as he takes small jabs at the New Mexico fanbase while criticizing their administration for being cheap. It’s admirable that Eustachy is advocating more pay for one of his colleagues but you have to wonder if doing this in a very public way is the best course of action.

Now when Colorado State travels to New Mexico on Jan. 27, there will be a lot of pressure on Eustachy, and his players, in what could be a hostile road environment. That’s a Saturday night game to keep an eye on later this season.