Wichita St.'s eclectic cast of characters make surprising Final Four run
Carl Hall sat in his Staples Center locker stall late last Thursday, answering reporters' questions. His team had just dispatched La Salle to reach the Elite 8, and in two days' time they'd topple second seed Ohio State to earn a Final Four berth. Hall, Wichita State's bespectacled 6-foot-8 forward, sat surrounded by reporters from around the country that suddenly wanted to know his life story.
"I really don't know how I got here," he marveled.
Much of the college basketball world is still puzzled as to how Hall and the Shockers -- a No. 9 seed that lost its top five scorers from the previous season and finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference -- got to the Final Four. But Hall wasn't referring to his or his teammates' on-court exploits. He is one of several key contributors on the team that took a circuitous route to even play for Wichita State.
Of the 10 Shockers players that saw the court against the Buckeyes last Saturday, five played at a junior college. Two had multiple college stops before arriving in Wichita. They hail from as far away as Nigeria and the Bahamas. And there are as many players on the roster from Georgia (two) as there are from Wichita.
"My assistant coaches have done a wonderful job in mining the different fertile grounds of players -- high school, prep school, junior college transfers," said head coach Gregg Marshall.
The Shockers' roster is not unlike that of many mid-majors, comprised in large part of players that hit a snag somewhere in their development -- bad grades, an injury, a bad fit at their first school. But it's not just their previous destinations that tell the story. The MVP of last week's regional ditched a major-conference program to pay his own way at Wichita. Their top rebounder overcame a heart condition that caused him to quit basketball at one point. Their top scorer might have gone elsewhere if not for a hurricane.
In advance of their Saturday date with No. 1 Louisville, get to know the backstories of Wichita State's key players:
• Forward Carl Hall (12.5 points per game, 6.9 rebounds): The Cochran, Ga., native began his college career way back in 2007 at Middle Georgia College. He first fainted while playing hoops in high school. He thought it was dehydration. But then it kept happening. Three games into that first juco season, after another fainting spell, doctors shut him down. He was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, a temporary loss of consciousness associated with abnormal heart rate. Even after he was eventually cleared to return, Hall initially declined. "Once you pass out you don't want to go through that situation again," he said.
Instead, Hall spent two years attending school by day while working the graveyard shift painting fluorescent lightbulbs at a factory in his hometown. But his condition improved with medication. Hall began playing neighborhood pickup games, and when those went well, transferred to Northwest Florida State for the 2010-11 season. Hall said he hasn't fainted in two-and-a-half years.
Marshall was among his earliest juco suitors, and despite subsequent interest from major-conference programs, arrived at Wichita State last season, earning Missouri Valley Newcomer of the Year honors. This despite admittedly playing out of shape due to Marshall's concern about pushing him too hard. This year he took his game to another level, scoring 16 points in the Sweet 16 win over La Salle and notching a game-changing six blocks against Ohio State.
"It's like I'm in a dream right now," he said. "I'm just trying to take advantage of this whole opportunity."
• Point guard Malcolm Armstead (10.9 points, 3.9 assists): After failing to qualify academically out of high school, the Florence, Ala., native spent a year at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College before signing with Oregon, where he started for two seasons. When the school fired coach Ernie Kent after the 2009-10 season, Armstead played one season under new coach Dana Altman, breaking his own school record for steals (89), but was uncomfortable with Altman's system. "It was a business decision," he said. "I left for a better situation."
Armstead chose Wichita State in large part because of his familiarity with the coaching staff -- Marshall recruited him while at Chipola and Marshall's newly hired assistant, Greg Heiar, had coached him there. There was just one problem: Marshall didn't have a scholarship available for the 2011-12 season, the year Armstead would have to sit out as a transfer. The point guard took out loans and worked part-time as a runner for a car dealership in nearby Cheney, Kan. He ditched a Pac-12 scholarship to pay his own way in the MVC.
"People in my neighborhood were like, 'Why are you doing this? You can play for free somewhere,'" said Armstead. "But my family was behind me 100 percent. I love them to death. They allowed me to pursue my dreams.''
Armstead has a large tattoo on his arm that includes the numbers 256, the area code for Florence, as well as that city's skyline. He says it's to remind him of all he's been through the past five years. Last weekend he was named Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional after averaging 16 points in two games and now he's going to the Final Four. "It's like a dream come true," he said. "Good story."
• Forward Cleanthony Early (13.7 points, 5.3 rebounds): Early grew up in the Bronx before moving upstate to Middletown, N.Y., with his family for high school. Poor grades caused him to spend a year at Mt. Zion (N.C.) Academy prep school in 2009-10.Then, in the summer of 2010, his 32-year-old brother, Jamel Glover, drowned while swimming in a river with friends. Opting to stay close to home to be near his mother and Glover's family, Early spent the next two years dominating his competition at Division III Sullivan Junior College. He became a two-time juco Division III player of the year.
The long, athletic 6-8 forward first caught Marshall's eye at Jerry Mullen's JUCO Top 100 Camp near St. Louis in July 2011 and took his official visit to Wichita State in late August. While on campus, Hurricane Irene began bearing down on his home state. When it came time to leave after the NCAA-mandated 48 hours, "planes were not going back to the New York area," said Marshall. "We literally could not get him back." The school contacted the NCAA and received a waiver to extend his visit. "So he got to know our players very, very well, liked them, liked our staff," said Marshall. "... It ended up working to our favor." Indeed, Early committed within a couple of weeks, choosing Wichita State over San Diego State and others, and signed that fall.
Stepping into a program that lost a huge senior class, Early emerged as the Shockers' top scorer in his first season, a versatile player that can both post up and shoot from outside. During the second half of the Ohio State game he suffered what appeared at the time a serious ankle injury, hobbling to the locker room, but was back on the court in time to fend off the Buckeyes' rally. And he had the biggest smile of any Wichita State player after helping cutting down the net last Saturday. "Last year ... I was playing D-III juco watching [the Final Four] on TV. Just watching it," said Early. "Now I'm looking at a hat that says 'Final Four Atlanta 2013' with my team on it. It's crazy."
• Guard Ron Baker (8.6 points): A quiet, mop-topped kid from tiny Scott City, Kan. (population 3,816), the 6-3 guard led his team to a Kansas Class 3A state title (hitting the game-winning shot in the 2011 final) but went lightly recruited. He was considering an offer from Division II Fort Hays State when associate head coach Chris Jans fell for him during that state tourney. Like Armstead, he had to spend his first year without a scholarship, redshirting while his parents paid his tuition. He was an immediate starter for the Shockers this season, scoring 18 points in his first game and hitting a pair of three-pointers in a Nov. 13 win at VCU.
But a stress fracture caused Baker to miss 21 games, and he did not return to the starting lineup until the NCAAs. It didn't take long to see what Wichita State had been missing. Baker was the star of the Shockers' Round of 32 upset over Gonzaga, scoring 16 points on 4-of-6 three-pointers. Against Ohio State he repeatedly drove the basket, hitting 9-of-9 free throws. The game happened to be played on his 20th birthday. "It ranks right up there with the best things that have ever happened to me," Baker said Saturday night. "Today's my birthday, and it couldn't be going any better."
The Shockers do have a few players with more conventional backgrounds. Guard Demetric Williams is a fourth-year senior from Las Vegas. Sophomore guard Tekele Cotton and freshman guard Fred Van Vleet, both of whom made key shots late in the Ohio State game, also arrived straight from high school. (Van Vleet was a national Top 150 recruit last year.) But most never had the option of signing with the type of program normally accustomed to Final Four runs. So they made their own.
"It feels even better that I can experience it with these guys with their struggles and they overcame what they have to go through in life," said Early. "It feels very good, but we understand the fact that we've got to stay hungry and humble because we've got two more games left to really be excited about."