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BenFred: Mid-major coaches don't always have to move on

Gregg Marshall, Fred VanVleet

Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, left, talks with Fred VanVleet (23) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Tulsa won 77-67. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Ron Baker, the relentless All-American who never seems to need air, swished his fifth 3-pointer of the game, a back-breaking shot against Loyola that paved the way for Wichita State’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinal win Friday. As a Scottrade Center crowd dominated by yellow-clad Kansans roared, you had to wonder: Why would Gregg Marshall, the MVC’s $3 million man, want to be anywhere else?

It’s that time again. Some mid-major college basketball teams will surge in their conference bracket, and perhaps secure an NCAA Tournament appearance. Athletics directors with stalled power conference programs will notice. The coaching carousel will spin.

Followers of Missouri, Illinois and SLU are in the midst of March Sadness. SLU and Mizzou are certified hot-seat situations. Neither Tigers coach Kim Anderson nor Billikens coach Jim Crews has received a public vote of confidence from an athletics director. Saying nothing definitive says something. Some fans have already started compiling their own hot boards. Time will tell if a search occurs.

Whether one is seriously shopping, or just daydreaming, the MVC is a great place to look for up-and-comers. Always has been. Always will be. Who will be the next to make the leap?

Fifth-year Loyola coach Porter Moser’s stock would have soared if his Ramblers dethroned the Shockers. Instead, the former Illinois State coach walked off with a 15-17 record this season, a bummer after last year’s 24-13 campaign.

Speaking of Illinois State, how about fourth-year Redbirds coach Dan Muller? He’s never won fewer than 18 games in a season, knocked off a Top 10 Wichita State team in this tournament last season and came back with the No. 3 seed this year.

Remove the MVC restriction, and more mid-major names offer intrigue.

Fifth-year Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew is 120-47 and chasing his third NCAA Tournament bid at his alma mater. Second-year Tennessee State coach Dana Ford, a former Illinois State guard who used to coach under Marshall at Wichita State, engineered a 15-game turnaround this season. Fourth-year UAB coach Jerod Haase went to the NCAA Tournament last season, then went 25-5 this season.

Potential targets should savor the attention but make sure any offer they accept is a no-brainer. They should also consider the route taken by Marshall, as well as 10th-year Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, along with a growing list of other coaches who have proved wrong the old notion that you have to move up to win big.

“I don’t know about trends,” Marshall said this week. “I honestly don’t follow trends. I just go with my gut and what’s best for me, my family, my program, my players.”

Marshall went to seven NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons at Winthrop between 1998 and 2007. Friday’s win made it likely that his ninth season in Wichita will result in the Shockers’ fifth straight NCAA Tournament ticket, a stretch that has included a Final Four and a Sweet 16.

Marshall has turned down Missouri in the past, and last season he passed on a whopper of an offer from Alabama. His current contract will jump to $3.5 million a year in 2018, and stay there until 2022. That’s not mid-major money. Only Kentucky’s John Calipari makes more.

And consider this: According to numbers from the Department of Education, the Shockers spent $5,738,315 on total men’s basketball expenses between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015. Mizzou spent only $8,037 more in that same time period.

“The people in Wichita State don’t make it feel like a mid-major program,” Marshall said. “If you want to say that, that’s fine. It’s your opinion. But I think it’s a lot better than a lot of power five jobs in many, many ways.

“Unless something changes, that will be my opinion.”

I asked Jacobson, who on Friday improved to 217-117 as he tries to lead Northern Iowa to its fourth NCAA Tournament during his tenure, what he would tell a young coach who is considering leaving the MVC.

“The only place I can go is my experience,” he said. “And as we’ve gone through some of those conversations, and had some of those opportunities come our way, my wife and I, the only thing we talk about is making sure that we think about the fit. We don’t talk about the money ...

“Now, for somebody else, maybe the best fit is a move. Maybe it is somewhere else. The only thing I would say is give some thought to the fit. For us, our conversations, that doesn’t include the money and some of the other things. For us, it’s been about the people.”

Similar comments seem to come annually from Xavier’s Chris Mack and Dayton’s Archie Miller. It took Texas to pry Shaka Smart from Virginia Commonwealth. It took the Boston Celtics to get Brad Stevens out of Butler.

This doesn’t mean coaches will stop making the jump, but there is growing evidence that it’s possible to to force your current program to grow with you instead of starting over somewhere else.

Muller is another man now leading the team he once played for. I asked him if he has learned anything about staying put from Marshall and Jacobson.

“You can be happy and successful in the Missouri Valley, and win nationally,” Muller said. “I think that what every coach wants, and we have terrific coaches in this league.”

The best ones keep coming back.

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