The Magic of March will always lead to heartbreak.
While we’re celebrating Paul Jersperson’s half court heave to send Northern Iowa to the second round, Isaiah Taylor and the rest of the Texas Longhorns shed tears that we’ll never see as their season comes to an end on a prayer outside of even Stephen Curry’s range. Cincinnati’s despair was two-fold: They lost in the NCAA tournament on a dunk that came after the buzzer and had their AAC tournament run stifled thanks to a 65-footer that barely counted.
March is a zero-sum game.
For every winner, there must be a loser. And with every loser, comes the end of a season, the end of a career, the end of an era. That adds another layer to what makes this event so special. It’s like the finale of a television series, our one last chance to say goodbye to people we’ve become inextricably attached to despite the fact that we barely know them beyond the jersey and rarely meet them anywhere other than in the sterility of a media session or a fan meet-and-greet.
That is to say that we don’t really know them even if it feels like we do.
But there’s still a sadness knowing that we’ll never watch, root for or cover those players in this setting ever again. There’s a finality to it all that you don’t find in any other sport, an abruptness in quickly the end comes.
What makes this season different is that it is the Year of the Senior. It was fun to see Karl Towns go from a kid that we knew could be good to a player that we knew had a chance at being great. We watched D’angelo Russell turn into a walking triple-double and the No. 2 pick in the draft. We got our chance to ooh-and-ahh over Jahlil Okafor’s throwback lowpost game. But in the end, we knew that those guys were nothing more than a one-year rental in our game.
The stars we’re losing this season are kids that we’ve seen grow over four years. Denzel Valentine went from a role player that couldn’t shoot into a bonafide superstar that fell victim to the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. Buddy Hield went from being a defensive stopper as a freshman to putting up numbers that could be mentioned in the same sentence as J.J. Redick his senior season. Yogi Ferrell’s path was not easy, but he will leave Bloomington as the legend that he was supposed to be when he got to campus. Georges Niang will graduate as the one guy that might beat out Fred Hoiberg for Mayor of Ames.
Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Perry Ellis, Malcolm Brogdon.
Those guys all will have left legacies at their respective programs by the time their careers come to a close.
And they will all pale in comparison to the legacy that Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker will leave behind in Wichita.
Because we will never see another Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
Think about what those kids accomplished throughout their career. As freshmen, they played major roles on a team that went to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. As sophomores, they were the stars of a team that started the season 35-0, an NCAA record. As juniors, they made it back to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed, picking off in-state rival Kansas in the process.
The only time they didn’t win multiple NCAA tournament games in their four seasons together came when their tournament loss was their only loss of the season.
“We’ve been through so much together,” VanVleet said after Saturday’s second round loss to No. 3 Miami. “And that’s the only thing keeping my spirit up right now is just the type of teammates we’ve got, the family atmosphere that we have.”
They turned Wichita State into a top 25 program, the Gonzaga of the Midwest. The Shockers were always the story in their city and one of the best programs in the Missouri Valley, but VanVleet and Baker helped turn the program into a national brand.
“They’ve taken us on a magic carpet ride,” head coach Gregg Marshall said. “What they’ve done for this program, this University, the state of Kansas and college basketball, it’s been incredible.”
And don’t forget about what they’ve done for Gregg Marshall himself, because that’s where this story gets really interesting.
This is the end of the VanVleet and Baker era in Wichita, but will it be the end of the Marshall era as well? His name has been linked with seemingly every high major job opening the last three years. Alabama basically wrote him a blank check when they tried to hire him away from the Shockers last spring. He was linked to the Texas job that Shaka Smart eventually filled. He’s been mentioned in conjunction with the vacancies at Oklahoma State and TCU, as well as a couple of jobs that haven’t even come open yet.
Such is life when you’re a successful head coach outside the Power Five conferences, even if Marshall is getting paid like one. The contract he signed last April was a seven-year deal worth more than $23 million, which makes him one of the top 15 highest-paid coaches in the country. It’s not going to be easy to pry him loose.
But he also has a buyout of $500,000 if he decides to leave the school, compared to the $15 million Wichita State would have to pay him if he were to be fired.
He can afford to find a different job.
The question is if he wants one.
Marshall has built the Shockers into a program that can compete with bigger schools for players. Markis McDuffie was a top 100 recruit that is going to be a monster in the Missouri Valley. Connor Frankamp was a top 50 recruit. Rashard Kelly was recruited to play in bigger leagues, as was incoming freshman C.J. Keyser.
But as good as those kids have the chance to be, it’s hard to imagine them being as good as VanVleet and Baker were. VanVleet made multiple all-american teams, will have a career in the NBA and if one of those guys whose leadership and intangibles make him far more valuable than his measureables and shooting percentages. Baker did as well, and he may actually be the better NBA prospect.
In other words, there is no guarantee that Marshall will ever get this program back to these heights again.
Which means that, if he is going to leave, there has never been a better time to do it.
So who knows what the future holds for this program.
And yes, I feel guilty writing that, because at this point it shouldn’t be about the future. It should be about appreciating what we were able to watch that group accomplish the last four years; the places that Shocker Nation was able to root their team on.
It was special.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” VanVleet said. “All good things got to come to an end at some point, unless we were able to cut down the nets in Houston this year. I probably would have cried just the same just because it was over.”
“We all sitting at this table came back for a reason this year, and I feel the same way today that I felt last year. I’m not looking forward in my future to anything else, just want to appreciate these guys and our fans and the program.”
“Shocker Nation is real, so thank you.”