ATLANTA — Gregg Marshall did not think he had much of a shot.
As an assistant coach at College of Charleston in 1998, he interviewed for the Winthrop opening, hoping to become a head coach after more than a decade as an assistant.
“I remember telling them my College of Charleston experience,” he said. “I was not the architect, but I was the foreman and I carried some bricks. I slung some mortar. I could steal the blueprint. They fell for it. … Nine years later, seven NCAA tournaments, it was a bit of a run.”
He could be up for the Pritzker Prize of coaching for the temple of a program he has built at Wichita State.
Fifteen years after getting his first head coaching job, lacking the connect-the-dots journey across the map many coaches take before reaching this stage, Marshall is a day away from his first Final Four and Wichita State’s first since 1965.
If he continues to spurn offers from power-conference programs, Marshall will join coaches such as VCU’s Shaka Smart, Butler’s Brad Stevens and Gonzaga’s Mark Few who have made staying put the right move.
“I could retire there, I hope,” Marshall said. “At the same time, if the right situation ever comes along at the right time, I haven’t closed any doors. I listen. But I am very cautious on making moves.
“We turned Winthrop into a program where we could win consistently. I knew that we could win consistently at Wichita State. I don’t care if you pay me $5 million a year and I’m getting my brains beaten out, I’m not going to be very happy.”
Color him ecstatic this week as the ninth-seeded Shockers prepare for Saturday’s game at the Georgia Dome against top-seeded Louisville.
When he took over the Shockers in 2007 from Mark Turgeon, they had gone 17-14. After finishing ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference in Marshall’s first season and tied for fifth in his second, they have finished second or first in each of the past four seasons with at least 25 victories.
Few people picked them for the Final Four this season after losing five starters, but Louisville coach Rick Pitino says he did just that after watching Wichita State win at VCU in November.
“I’ll say this without any exaggeration,” Pitino said. “They’re the best team we will have faced this year at the defensive end. They are Marquette on steroids.”
Marshall brought to Wichita, Kan., a pestering, physical defense he learned by coaching alongside former College of Charleston coach John Kresse.
The Shockers’ “angry defense” produces a rebounding margin of plus-7.5 and limits opponents to 39.8 percent shooting. During their NCAA tournament run, only top-seeded Gonzaga scored at least 70 points, and Wichita State beat Pittsburgh and La Salle by double digits. Second-seeded Ohio State shot only 31.1 percent in the regional final.
“They don’t let you go into the paint without four guys attacking you,” Pitino said. “They are the toughest team to score against.”
This is the first time a Missouri Valley team has appeared in the Final Four since Larry Bird led Indiana State in 1979.
“There’s more exposure for the league,” Marshall said. “Ultimately it would help recruiting leaguewide.”
The nation is getting to know Marshall. In his yellow-rimmed glasses, alongside Pitino, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Michigan’s John Beilein, Marshall is clearly the answer to “one of these things is not like the other.”
But he feels at home — at Wichita State and at the Final Four.
“Great to be (here) with this Shocker basketball team,” he said, “a team that’s exceeded everyone’s expectations this year.”