It was the middle of winter in Wichita, and Gregg Marshall gathered his Wichita State team in the film room to show them what he called the "play of the year."
At this point in the season, things were looking surprisingly good for a team that wasn't supposed to do too much. After losing their top five scorers from the season before, the Shockers had nine new faces in the locker room. They had been picked to finish fourth in the tough, physical Missouri Valley Conference in the preseason, which would mean missing the NCAA tournament. Then early-season injuries to key players -- big man Carl Hall, freshman guard Ron Baker -- meant those low expectations could have been tempered even more. But on this January day, Marshall had just learned his 19-2 Shockers were ranked 15th in the AP Poll and 14th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, the highest ranking a Marshall-coached team had ever received.
There's been one goal since Marshall came to Wichita six seasons ago after a successful nine-year run at Winthrop: making the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. To make the Sweet 16, Marshall knew he needed to inspire this team of JUCO transfers and second-tier recruits to constantly be the hardest workers on the floor. So that's why, over and over on the video screen, he kept replaying a sequence just before halftime of a fairly meaningless early-season game, and calling it the "play of the year."
The coach had no idea at the time that it would be plays like this that would carry his unhyped, unexpected Shockers team all the way to this season's Final Four in Atlanta. He had no idea plays like this would send the Shockers to the Final Four as the first nine-seed since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 -- this year's version of Butler or George Mason or VCU.
Marshall stood in front of the screen in the darkened film room. He pointed at Demetric Williams, the team's speedy senior guard, who had just scored a bucket with less than 10 seconds left before half. Wichita State set up its trademark three-quarters court press. The opponent inbounded the ball and got it near halfcourt. Williams sprinted full-throttle toward the ball, then he and a teammate trapped the ball-handler near the scorer's table.
"Trap!" Marshall shouted. "Hands up!"
Williams ripped the ball away. With less than five seconds on the clock, he made a mad dash back toward the basket, dribbled past opponents, flew into the lane, and laid it in just as the buzzer sounded.
Marshall paused the video.
"I wish we could bottle this," the coach said. "Plays like this, he's really, really good. And that goes not just for him but for you other guys."
Plays like this are what made the Shockers -- who would stumble into a three-game losing streak after that January film session and who wouldn't crack the top 25 the rest of the season -- the Final Four team no one saw coming.
Wichita State doesn't have the McDonald's All-Americans, doesn't get the five-star recruits. The team's starting point guard is Malcolm Armstead, who transferred from Oregon because he thought Wichita State was a place he could win. But a scholarship wasn't available, so Armstead got a job at a local car dealership and paid his own way. Its elite scorer is the long, lean Cleanthony Early, who Marshall found at Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., then had to teach that he didn't need to shoot the ball every time he touched it. And the team's brute of a big man is Carl Hall, who had to quit playing junior college ball in Georgia because of a heart condition, got a job painting light fixtures on the graveyard shift at Lithonia Lighting to make ends meet, decided his love for basketball was worth the risk of his heart condition, and ended up at Wichita State.
"I told my doctor, 'I could live with dying from playing basketball,'" Hall told FOXSports.com.
This isn't a team that wins on talent alone. This is a team that wins with good coaching and hard work and uncommon toughness. This is a team made in the image of its intense coach, who played college ball at tiny Randolph-Macon College, a ballhandling point guard who survived on hustle and smarts. Marshall moved to New Mexico after college to live with his parents and work as a blackjack dealer and craps stickman, and he only got into coaching because his college coach, Hal Nunnally, flew to New Mexico to convince his parents that Marshall had a knack for both recruiting and coaching and ought to give it a try.
If Kansas is the basketball blueblood of the Midwest, then Wichita State is the scrappy kid with the boiling blood who can surprise you with a punch in the face.
"What we do as well as anybody in the country is play hard," Marshall told FOXSports.com. "Sometimes too hard."
Like in the regional final against Ohio State. In that game, Hall took an elbow to the jaw, and his coach thought he might've had a concussion. Hall went to the locker room then returned to the game. Then, Early twisted an ankle and writhed in pain on the floor; Early went to the locker room, then returned to the game.
It's a perfect meshing of coach, team and city. Wichita is a place hit hard by the economic struggles of recent years. The local economy is based on aerospace -- home to Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Learjet -- and took a hit when the industry went into a downturn. Shortly after Marshall took the Wichita State job, the former president of the university, Donald Beggs, told Marshall he has the opportunity to pull the whole community together. It may sound cheesy, but that doesn't make it any less true. Wichita State basketball is the only game in town. It's what the Thunder are to Oklahoma City. The role of Wichita State in Kansas is similar to what Louisville's role has been in Kentucky: The second, non-blueblood option in a basketball-loving state.
Beating Louisville and heading to the national title game is a tall, tall task. Louisville's full-court press is historically good, keeping opponents to the lowest per-possession scoring average in a decade, fueling an offense that's finally clicking, with its only loss since January being in five overtimes against Notre Dame. If there's an unbeatable team in this year's tournament, it's Louisville.
But if there's one thing that can beat Louisville, it's not five-star recruits. (See: Game vs. Duke in the Elite Eight.) It's outworking and outhustling an equally hard-working, hustling Louisville team.
Will Wichita State do it? Probably not. But listen to Shockers associate head coach Chris Jans describing his boss, and decide for yourself whether Marshall's team can win one for all the little guys who never had a chance to get here.
"He's always on," Jans said. "Bringing it every day. I don't care if you're watching video, or on the practice court, recruiting. New kids get in, and we don't talk about it. It's just the way we do things."
Bottle that up, and next week we just might be talking about the biggest Cinderella in college basketball history.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.