CBK preview: Wichita State, mid-majors in the mix

Lindy's Sports, special to The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Let's line up the coaches from the 2013 Final Four side by side.
We have Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, John Beilein and Gregg Marshall.
Now, which one of these coaches is not like the others?
The answer: None of them.
Be honest. You thought Marshall would be the answer because he's the only one who doesn't run one of college basketball's blue-blood programs. He's the only coach of a "mid-major."
But Marshall is not any different in measurables that matter.
He's happy at Wichita State -- just like the others are happy at Louisville, Syracuse and Michigan. He's getting rich at Wichita State -- just like the others are getting rich.
But here's the most relevant part: He can compete for a national championship at Wichita State -- just like the others can do at their schools.
Marshall is the latest beacon of light for one of the most exciting trends in the sport: mid-major programs continuing to narrow the traditional gap between them and the big boys -- and coaches realizing they don't necessarily need the big-time spotlight to feel validated.
In Marshall's case, he spurned UCLA's overtures in March while preparing for the Final Four. In years past, he has knocked down interest from ACC, Big East, Big Ten and SEC schools.
"I think our society believes we must continue to climb the corporate ladder," said Marshall, who enters his eighth year at Wichita State after spending nine seasons at Winthrop. "I've never believed that. There's such a benefit to being at a place where you can win -- to win and be able to enjoy your life. Your kids don't get ridiculed at school. You don't have to move your family. I've had opportunities to move, but nothing has struck me."
Instead, college basketball has been shifting to accommodate the Gregg Marshalls and Shaka Smarts, the Butlers and Xaviers and Creightons.
Those three schools were just welcomed into the Big East, where they'll compete on more than equal footing with schools that long have reaped extra benefits from being part of a name-brand conference.
Smart has turned down multiple overtures to stay at VCU, which has climbed to the Atlantic 10. For years, Brad Stevens turned down the world to stay at Butler, until Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge came calling in July with a different challenge and $22 million.

The point is, there's no glass-backboard ceiling hovering over mid-major schools and coaches any longer.
Marshall remembers a conversation he had with John Calipari in 2006 when Marshall's Winthrop team traveled to face Calipari's Memphis crew.
"He said, ‘You've effectively done what I did at UMass and Memphis: You've made Winthrop into your next job,'" Marshall said. "Now, at Wichita State, my first contract was six years for about $750,000 per year. My new contract is eight years at close to $2 million. The job is so much better than it was."
"You don't have to be at one of the name brands to have success and be recognized for it," said West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who's entering his third year as a member of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee that determines the NCAA Tournament field. "That's just a good thing for college basketball."
But major successes don't just shatter glass ceilings for mid-major programs: They trigger trap floors.
Each time a mid-major team reaches the Final Four (and other achievements occur, such as Gonzaga finishing No. 1 in the final 2012-13 Associated Press poll), expectations rise for all mid-major teams.
"Business is getting tougher for everybody," Zaninovich said. "Athletic departments, athletic directors, coaches. It's more competitive than it's ever been."
Coaches who don't win quickly don't always get time to build a program. And coaches who win a ton don't feel like they're necessarily keeping pace with expectations.
Akron's Keith Dambrot, once known primarily as LeBron James' coach for his first two years of high school, has developed the Zips into the Shaqs of the MAC.
Akron has reached the conference tournament championship game of the 12-team MAC each of the last seven years. The Zips have played in three of the last five NCAA tournaments - giving the school four bids in its history - and averaged 24 wins during the last eight years.
Yet Dambrot is one of many top-flight mid-major coaches who sense increasing pressure to reach the Final Four. Because, hey, what's the difference between an Akron and a Wichita State?
All mid-majors are alike, right?
"There are a lot of factors involved," Dambrot said. "Whether you have I-A football. Whether you have a 16,000-seat arena. Whether you have a high budget. If you don't have these things, you have to think outside the box. That's how we try to survive."
One example: Before Akron's athletic department had the wherewithal to budget for two graduate assistants to serve as academic advisers for the basketball team, Dambrot raised $45,000 to hire his own academic services person.
"There's greater parity in college basketball today than ever," said Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin, who helped recruit Marshall to Wichita State in 2007. "It's easy to say, 'All you've got to do is get into the tournament. And if you're playing your best basketball, you can keep advancing.'"
And stamp your place in college basketball history. Even at a mid-major.
"Kansas is one of the states that produces some of the best beef in the country," Marshall said. "It's like I've been branded, like cattle: 'A Final Four coach.' It'll be that way forever."