ST. LOUIS – In this very same arena two Saturdays ago, seated at the very same podium, Gregg Marshall needed to get a couple of things straight.
His Wichita State Shockers had just won their Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinal game. Marshall had finished his press conference. And then, while still at the microphone, he informed the Valley officials of some things that needed to be corrected.
"There's a nail sticking up here," he said, motioning to the table on the podium. "I tore my suit coat on it yesterday. Can we get that taken care of?"
Marshall then transitioned to a tutorial on the pronunciation of guard Tekele Cotton's name. The Scottrade Center announcer had called him Te-KEEL for two days, and the coach had heard enough.
"It's Te-KALE," he said. "Like the vegetable."
And that, basketball fans, is Marshall being Marshall.
Part perfectionist. Part critic. All details, all the time. Get it right or get out of the way.
Over the years, Marshall has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Missouri Valley – there are old stories floating around about him going nose-to-nose with commissioner Doug Elgin in the back hallways of the Scottrade Center during the conference tournament. His sideline reviews of officiating can be withering and caustic. Practices are intense quests to rid his team of any lingering imperfections, no matter how small.
"He's an orderly person," said Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz, coming up with an ideal adjective to describe Marshall.
The coach of the Shockers will be striving to maintain NCAA tournament bracket order Sunday in a most intriguing round-of-32 showdown with Kentucky. In the conventional basketball universe, Wichita State would be the striver team seeking to take down the powerhouse Wildcats. As recently as November, that would have been the case, when Kentucky began the season ranked No. 1 and the Shockers were 16th – despite that Wichita was coming off a Final Four season and Kentucky was coming off a first-round NIT loss.
But a lot has changed since November. The young and often dysfunctional Wildcats became the first preseason No. 1 in 34 years to fall out of the AP Top 25, losing nine games before a last-minute makeover heading into the Southeastern Conference tournament righted the ship. As for Wichita State, the one thing that hasn't changed is that "0" in the loss column. It's still there.
The perfect record is the byproduct of a perfectionist coach.
"Coach Marshall really dials in on little things," guard Ron Baker said. "We'll be going through practice and he'll blow the whistle and everybody will look at him strangely, and he will talk about a play three weeks ago. I have never seen it from a coach."
Added Cotton: "Coach Marshall to me is a mastermind. He knows how to strategize and break things down and really get detailed, like just really focus in on whoever we play. He knows how to motivate us and to get us jacked and ready for that game in particular."
This game, in particular, is Marshall's chance to elevate himself into the highest realm of his profession.
Last season's Final Four run and this 35-0 masterpiece put him in the elite category. But like his Shockers as a whole, you eventually have to beat the biggest brand names in the sport to fully arrive.
Beating John Calipari on Sunday would be that kind of arrival game.
Marshall has beaten coaches who have been to Final Fours – Thad Matta, Tom Crean, Shaka Smart, John Brady. He has beaten long-time, established coaches who have not been to Final Fours – Mark Few, Jamie Dixon, Mike Brey, Bob McKillop. But he has not yet hung a champion's skin on his wall.
Although Marshall probably outcoached Rick Pitino in the 2013 Final Four, he didn't get the victory. Louisville came back in large part because of a pair of semi-desperate 3-pointers from a walk-on sub that turned the tide. Pitino went on to win the title two days later and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Now Calipari is in Marshall's sights. And in Marshall's way.
To date this year, Wichita has been the better team. Come June, the NBA will make it clear which coach has more talent. Several Wildcats will shake hands with the NBA commissioner then, while the only Shocker on the 2014 draft radar is forward Cleanthony Early.
"We didn't even send a form letter to any of [the current Wildcats]," Marshall said. "… I didn't even know who their players were, honestly. I didn't watch them in AAU's and that's a different level of recruiting. We don't deal with that very often.
"People ask me, like uncles and cousins and my dad, 'What do you think of Julius Randle?' I didn't even know what he looked like until this current season and watched him on television. Because we don't recruit those players. … I bet not one player on our team got a form letter from Kentucky. So it's just a whole different level of recruiting."
Calipari was once like Marshall – a mid-major battler who built a program from scratch at Massachusetts and rebuilt an upper-middle-class program at Memphis. But that was before the upgrade to Kentucky, 2012 championship ring, the $5.2 million annual salary, the book deals and the yogurt business.
Cal is now a walking conglomerate. Marshall, while hardly a pauper making $2 million a year and flying his team on private jets, is still working to check all the boxes on the career checklist.
Winning Sunday would take care of one.
Winning four more after that would check every box.
But even if he reaches the very pinnacle of his profession, expect Gregg Marshall to still be harping about protruding nails and mispronunciations. He hasn't gotten this far by letting anything slide.
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