ST. LOUIS — The locker room was silent, players sat motionless. This was 39 minutes before No. 2 Wichita State tipped off against Indiana State on Sunday – an unblemished record on the line – and 14 players sat in folding chairs in front of coach Gregg Marshall.
Standing in front of a dry erase board, he delivered a blunt message in 43 seconds.
"Just so we know where we are," he said. "Where are we? Where do we stand? What's at stake?"
He held out a tablet and scrolled down.
"This," he continued, "is from the Sycamores, Indiana State alumni association.
"Scroll to the bottom. They have planned tonight a pep rally to welcome the 2014 Arch Madness tournament champions home. Hulman Center. Doors open at 8 o'clock, OK. Tonight. To welcome the Valley tournament champions home, all right.
"So that is what you're dealing with.
"They want a piece of us. They want a piece of us. Let's give 'em the whoooole thing. Let's give them the whole enchilada."
The Shockers charged onto the court and beat Indiana State 83-69 in the Missouri Valley Conference title game before a Scottrade Center crowd awash in yellow and black.
Wichita State (34-0) will become the first team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated since a star-studded UNLV team accomplished the feat in 1991. The 1975-76 Indiana team was the last undefeated national champion, which means an undefeated champion has never been crowned since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (now 68) in 1985.
"This team is going to be remembered 50 years from now," Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin told USA TODAY Sports. "The real tantalizing question now? Can they run the table – 40-0?"
Throughout the weekend as Wichita State chased its first MVC tournament championship since 1987, Marshall focused on winning this particular event – incrementally proceeding game by game, even half by half – rather than cementing a 34-0 record.
"The pressure was a lot more in the regular season," sophomore guard Ron Baker says. "This is a new season for us."
The Shockers are expected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and play their first two games here in St. Louis as they begin their pursuit of back-to-back Final Four appearances. In a season chock-full of intriguing story lines, the Shockers stand as the most compelling. Led by a candid, shoot-from-the-hip coach, they are a bunch of overlooked, under-recruited players who proudly wear a chip on their shoulder. And they recoil at the suggestion that WSU is a "mid-major" program.
In fact, when a reporter asked Marshall in a news conference about being a mid-major, the coach bristled and said, "That 'MM' term that you used has been buried. I'm sure you saw that, but they had the funeral and everything, last rites. It's over."
Whether Wichita State would be better poised for a deep NCAA tournament run if it had suffered a loss has made for a strong debate. In 2004, Saint Joseph's suffered its first loss of the season in the Atlantic-10 tournament, earned a No. 1 seed and still reached the Elite Eight.
"It's too late in the year to lose," Wichita State assistant Steve Forbes said. "Maybe in January. When you get in February, March, time to keep winning. All a loss does is create a little self doubt. 'Oh, you can get them back (in gear) right after a loss'. Well, we have them right."
Aside from overcoming a 19-point deficit with 11:48 to play at Missouri State on Jan. 11, Wichita State has largely avoided much turbulence. Marshall says he's not sure he has called more than two timeouts all season long.
"I think timeouts are a sign of weakness," he said.
And the Shockers' first two games here were devoid of adversity, much to the delight of the thousands of Shocker Nation fans who overtook the city.
At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, a large ballroom at the team's hotel, The Westin St. Louis, was packed with hundreds of Shockers fans, all in yellow and black. The crowd overflowed into the surrounding hallways for the team's pep rally. Fans, some riding high on the shoulders of their spouses, passionately sang along to the team's popular song. Some wore T-shirts adorned with the lyrics.
"You don't want to go to war/With the Shockers!"
"Don't start no stuff/Won't be no stuff!"
The university president John Bardo told the crowd that applications for admission for next fall are been up 89%. By the time Marshall finally addressed the fans, they were bursting with energy and anticipation.
"We've been playing one-and-done basketball for about a year," Marshall told them.
Ninety-minutes later Marshall walked in front of his players, all sitting in folding chairs in the locker room. In his final speech before the semifinal against Missouri State, he pointed to three circles drawn on the dry erase board and tapped the board. Only one circle had an 'X' in it.
"This is where we are in the tournament," he said. "It's three or nothing for us … We're one-third of the way there. It's three or bust. We're trying to put an 'X' right here today."
He talked about the importance of rebounding before pivoting back to the big picture. Players sat with rapt attention. No one moved.
"This will be our 33rd game in a row, but we don't talk about that anymore. We didn't talk about 32. The reason I talk about 33, okay, not only was it Larry Bird's number, not only is it the last Valley team, the most games they won before they lost in the championship game of the NCAA tournament back in the day, Larry Bird, but it's 33% toward a championship.
"When we win, it's 66.6 repeating. Sixty-seven percent – that's what we're after. Another step. Another step. Respect your opponent. Come out with unbelievable energy. We'll be fine."
The team came together and started clapping and hollering. Then they steamrolled Missouri State. By halftime, Wichita State was in total control of the game, but Marshall wasn't satisfied.
"This is the score, zero-zero," Marshall said. "Pay attention to that. It's very important …
"Bigs need to sprint more. You guys are (expletive) playing three or four minutes and coming out. Sprint! Sprint! Sprint! Sprint to screen! Sprint on your roll! Sprint to pop! Okay, more! Run the court on offense! Beat them down the floor!
"Fives cannot change angles, so if you sprint and sprint back they are going to be lost."
The outcome was never in doubt. After the 67-42 rout, Marshall walked into the locker room and delivered a two-minute speech.
"Okay, we've got a great steak dinner tonight," he says.
He looked up at a television screen.
"Go Tennessee," he said in reference to the Volunteers, a team Wichita State beat earlier this season, who were pounding Missouri.
"A couple things, man. You guys were so focused. God! They ended up getting 42, but we all know how that went down. The first group was really good. Really, really, really, relaly good. Less than a point a minute."
He looked at the three circles on the board and grabbed a marker.
"Can we do this? Finish this one."
Marshall finished off the 'X' in the second circle. Only one circle remained, one obstacle – Sunday's MVC title game.
"You're 67% toward your goal," he said. "Anyone want to sing for this one?"
"Wait!" players holler.
"We didn't sing for the last one, so we've got to wait!"
Later that night the team sat at round tables inside a private room in Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood restaurant downtown. Marshall was relaxed, sitting beside his wife, Lynn, and surrounded by close friends.
Lynn, who can be more outspoken than her husband, suggested a line or two that Marshall can fire back at critics of the program. Marshall roars. He repeats it three times. He loves it. He might use it one day.
His daughter Maggie later meandered over to the table and recounted how Bob Knight visited Wichita State's practice and told her that she had the wisest observations of anyone in the gym.
Marshall and a reporter turned to watch some of the Duke-North Carolina game on a large screen. They agreed it was an important so-called bounce-back game for the Blue Devils, who had previously lost to Wake Forest.
Marshall said he doesn't know anything about bounce-back games this season. Everyone laughs. He's right.
The Shockers have not lost since the 72-68 setback on April 6, 2013 to eventual national champion Louisville in the national semifinals.
Before Sunday's game, Marshall told his team that Indiana State and his team had different things at stake. He mentioned a potential 34-0 record. He mentioned 1991 UNLV.
There will be no Indiana State celebration tonight at the Hulman Center. The unbeaten Shockers are now back in the NCAA tournament, playing angry and chasing history.