ATLANTA — More than 30 years ago, Cliff Levingston was part of a powerhouse team at Wichita State that was stocked with future NBA talent, and to this day he believes it underachieved.
The Shockers were knocked off a game shy of the Final Four.
This year, Levingston has been watching from his home in Rochester, N.Y., as a more motley group of players from disparate backgrounds has done just the opposite: Without a bona fide star, unsung Wichita State will play Louisville on Saturday night for a spot in the title game.
“It’s all about the coaching staff finding the right players to fit the program,” said Levingston, now a minor-league basketball coach. “They’re playing for each other, because for some of these guys, this could be it, and they know it. They’re playing to be immortalized.”
But just who, exactly, are they?
Well, there’s Carl Hall, a rugged forward from rural Georgia, and Ron Baker, a small-town kid from Scott City. Their leading scorer, Cleanthony Early, came out of a tiny junior college in upstate New York and was passed over by most high-profile basketball programs.
Seven-footer Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College in Missouri. Kadeem Coleby is from the Bahamas, and once played for Louisiana-Lafayette, while a couple of backups in Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile are originally from Canada.
Then there’s Malcolm Armstead, a talented point guard from Florence, Ala. He also played at a junior college, spent time at Oregon and then landed at Wichita State, where there wasn’t even a scholarship available. He’s spent time working at a car dealership and took out student loans just so he could play one last season for head coach Gregg Marshall’s band of ragamuffins.
“I knew I only had one year left of eligibility to play, so it was a matter of finding a good situation,” Armstead explained. “I had a relationship with all the coaches, so I felt like that was the best thing possible for me to do.”
Just about all of them feel that way during this most sublime of postseason runs.
Many were castoffs or misfits, or were in situations that didn’t work out. Some were looking for a fresh start, others seeking a first chance after getting overlooked their entire lives.
It’s a far different group from that Wichita State team in 1981 that lost to LSU in the regional finals, and then sent Levingston, Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel to the NBA.
It’s also a different bunch than Louisville will trot onto the floor at the Georgia Dome.
Leading scorer Russ Smith picked the Cardinals over a handful of BCS offers, fellow starters Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva were four-star recruits out of high school, and sophomore forward Chane Behanen was rated among the top 25 prep players in his class by Rivals.com.
Indeed, the stars may be aligning for Wichita State during the NCAA tournament, but there weren’t a whole lot of them attached to their names when they were coming out of high school.
“We want winners. We want guys that really want to win, that want to commit themselves to something bigger than themselves,” Marshall said. “We want guys that are tough and athletic and can defend and rebound at a high level, and ultimately can put the ball in the basket.”
Evidently, he’s willing to go just about anywhere to find them.
Marshall remembers taking a recruiting trip with former assistant Chad Dollar when he was trying to land Hall, the energy incarnate for this year’s squad. Hall’s family lives in Chochran, Ga., about 120 miles from where the Final Four is going to be played.
“I can tell you how rural it is, I hit a deer when I went to see his mom,” Marshall said. “We blew out a tire and hit a deer, so it’s pretty rural.”
When he recruited Early, the Shockers’ leading scorer, Marshall had to petition the NCAA to allow the swingman’s visit to go longer than usual. The reason: Lousy weather was preventing any flights back to New York, essentially stranding Early on the Shockers’ campus.
“I didn’t know where Wichita was, either, before I went there. I had to do my research,” Early recalled. “When I first heard of it, I couldn’t even pronounce it correctly.”
The whole country is quickly finding out where it is now.
The Shockers ran roughshod through Pittsburgh and No. 1-seeded Gonzaga, before knocking off La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four. Along the way, they have dismissed any notion of what it takes to win on college basketball’s grandest stage.
“At this point, they’re all being interviewed, they’re all getting sized for Final Four rings, they’re all getting new Nike gear sent to them,” Marshall said. “What we’ve been teaching is to the victor go the spoils, and when we win, everybody gets a piece of it.”