If it's not the No. 1 characteristic Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall looks for in a recruit and tries to develop in his team, it's not far behind. He also likes character and a good jumper.
But Marshall has little doubt that toughness is what has allowed his team to achieve results and play at a level no one expected of the Shockers this season. They are 18-2 overall and 7-1 atop the Missouri Valley Conference following wins over then-No. 12 Creighton and Missouri State in the past week and ranked No. 20 in this week's Associated Press poll. Wichita State plays host to Bradley on Saturday.
This kind of success wasn't in the forecast. The Shockers lost nine seniors over the past two years and seven starters. This was supposed to be the proverbial rebuilding season. Even Marshall admits the results to this point in late January have surprised him.
“Our goal was to have a good year, not a superlative year,” Marshall said. “I don't think our goal was to be 18-2 at this point and in the top-20.”
He sat down with his assistant coaches in the fall and told them he wanted to survive this season. What he meant by surviving was winning more than 20 games, playing in the conference tournament and either earning a spot in the NCAA tournament or making a run in the NIT. He wasn't about to lower the bar further.
“I thought if we can do that, and that's what I told my staff, then we had this thing rolling because the future is very bright,” Marshall said. “We've got some very good young players. We've got a couple kids sitting out that we're redshirting and we've got a great recruiting class.”
Marshall wasn't so sure his expectations were achievable. He lost four seniors off the NIT championship team two years ago. Three of them were starters. Marshall then lost five seniors after last season and four of them were starters. They were the five leading scorers last season as well.
The program had young talent the coaching staff thought they it added plenty in recruiting, but there were few proven players to count on to carry the team. The attrition through graduation was complicated early in the season by injuries.
Sophomore starter Evan Wessel, whom Marshall described as his toughest kid and best perimeter shooter, suffered a broken pinky finger on his shooting hand and is out for the season following surgery. Two days later, senior Carl Hall, whom Marshall described as his best all-around player, broke his right thumb in a fall in practice.
A day later, starting shooting guard Ron Baker suffered a stress fracture. Hall only recently returned to the lineup. Baker is still several weeks away from returning if he does return at all this season. Marshall suddenly had players who were 11, 12 and 13 on his bench moving up to eight, nine and 10 and being called on for key minutes and contributions.
“We've always used our bench,” he said. “We play 10, 11, 12 guys in most games and our guys play extremely hard and they try to get prepared for opportunities. I tell them all the time, 'You don't know when your opportunity is going to come. It could come because of injury. It could come because of foul trouble. It could come because of anything, but when you get your opportunity to go in a game, you've got to make the most of it.'”
So how have the Shockers managed to sustain their excellence with so many new faces and key injuries? Marshall said its through a toughness he strived to develop in his players and program since was hired. It's a toughness that has allowed the Shockers to be one of the best road teams in the nation going 5-2 away from home so far this season and 24-5 on the road since the start of the 2010-11 season.
“This group does not like losing one bit,” he said. “They don't like being behind in a game. You can just tell they don't want to be out-performed or have someone out-compete them and that's their biggest strength as a group. We don't shoot it great, but we defend and we rebound and we grab loose balls and things like that.”
That toughness is personified in senior Demetric Williams, who has filled whatever role Marshall has asked of him over the past 31/2 years.
Williams became the winningest player in Wichita State history this week when the Shockers won at Missouri State. It was the 99th victory Williams has been a part of in his career. He surpassed a trio of seniors on last season's team who won 98 games in their careers. Williams could get win No. 100 Saturday against Bradley.
Marshall said he knew he had found toughness in senior point guard Malcolm Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, early in the year as well as junior college transfer Cleanthony Early. Armstead was instrumental in Wichita State's win at VCU in the second game of the season Nov. 13. He had 11 points, five rebounds, six assists, four steals and just three turnovers against one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation playing in an oppressive atmosphere.
“You handle the havoc with a guy like that and you don't turn the ball over,” Marshall said. “You don't give them easy baskets and fuel their fire. You don't give them open threes off steals. ...You don't do that without an experienced, tough, ball-handling decision maker like Malcolm Armstead.”
Wichita State players have been trained to fight through difficult situations knowing Marshall won't be quick to bail them out if momentum turns against them. He doesn't like calling timeouts just because the opponent gets on a roll. Marshall said his philosophy is often misunderstood. He says “I'm not stupid.” when explaining that he has no problem calling a timeout to stunt a run that could sink his team into too deep a hole but he probably waits to do so much longer than many of his peers.
For instance, earlier this week Missouri State went on a 19-0 run at the end of the first half and the start of the second half and Marshall saw his players struggling. But he waited for the media timeout with 16 minutes remaining instead of caving in to the mistakes he was witnessing.
“I don't call timeouts because I think in many ways I want my players to figure it out,” Marshall said. “That's toughness. That's mental toughness and usually by that time I don't have much good to say. I think a timeout would be almost a waste of time. It can be counter productive. I've said this before but in the overall picture I think calling timeouts is almost a sign of weakness.”
The Shockers rewarded their coach with a run of their own and won by 10. It was further evidence for Marshall that he has things rolling at Wichita State.
Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleRingo