SALT LAKE CITY – There will be talk throughout this NCAA tournament, from teams both favored and forgotten, about reaping the benefits of dedication and hard work paying off.
Wichita State guard Malcolm Armstead did things a little differently. He paid, quite literally, for the right to work hard.
Armstead, Wichita’s fifth-year senior point guard, leads the No. 9 seed Shockers against No. 1 seed Gonzaga in a second-round matchup of push-and-shove tonight at EnergySolutions Arena.
The stocky left-hander is the Shockers’ only player to start every game this season, immediately taking over as the team’s leader after transferring from Oregon and redshirting the 2011-12 season.
And he wasn’t on scholarship while he sat out.
“His family took a financial hit to attend Wichita State,” said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall. “And he got a part-time job, and probably is still in debt to this day.”
Armstead cites the relationships he had with Wichita’s coaches as the primary reason he wanted badly to play for the Shockers after deciding Oregon wasn’t for him.
He’d played his sophomore and junior seasons for the Ducks, first under coach Ernie Kent, then for Kent’s replacement, Dana Altman.
The Shockers wanted Armstead when he was a freshman at Chipola Junior College in Florida. And because Armstead’s coach at Chipola, Greg Heiar, is now an assistant on Marshall’s staff, Armstead saw Wichita as an ideal landing spot.
It didn’t matter that the Shockers didn’t have a scholarship available until this season. Armstead wanted to come to Wichita.
“I knew I only had one year of eligibility left to play,” Armstead said. “So it was a matter of finding a good situation. I had a relationship with all the coaches, so I felt like that was the best thing possible for me to do.
“I felt like leaving (Oregon) was maybe something I needed to do to clear my head, get a fresh start. Seemed like a better situation here.”
Hard to argue with the results. Armstead is the Shockers’ third-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game and also leads the team in assists and minutes played.
“He probably is the leader and the floor general,” said junior forward Cleanthony Early, the Shockers’ leading scorer. “He has the ball in his hands, understands his role, plays well and leads well.”
But he also quickly earned the respect of his teammates by showcasing his quick hands and dedication on defense, which is where the Shockers’ tough-guy persona finds its roots.
“He brings a lot to your team,” said sixth-year senior Carl Hall, one of Wichita’s three senior transfers who start. “He’s such a great digger. When you throw the ball in the block, he has such strong and quick hands that a post player might take a dribble and he might come take the ball from you.”
But at least he’s nice about it. Marshall told a story Friday about a game earlier this season in which Armstead engaged in a lengthy, in-game conversation with a guard on the other team.
Finally, Marshall had to ask.
“What are you telling him?” Marshall said. “He goes, ‘Well, Coach, I had just taken the ball from him, and I was trying to tell him he can’t dribble the ball so high. It’s not going to work.’ ”
Then why the heck would he tell him that?
“Well,” Marshall recalls Armstead saying, “he’s a nice kid, and I want to see him do well.”
“He’s been a great young man to coach,” Marshall said. “I’m pleased we’re advancing in the tournament for guys like him that have sacrificed quite a bit to be in this situation.”
Early Pullman flirtation
Early, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound junior from Middletown, N.Y., might stand out as the Shockers player most likely to give Gonzaga fits with his offensive ability.
And he was close to taking those talents to a different WSU – the one in Pullman.
Early was recruited out of Sullivan Community College by several big-name programs, but one of his few official visits was to Washington State.
He liked it, but not quite as much as the WSU in Kansas.
“I was close. I gave them a chance,” said Early, who leads the Shockers in scoring at 13.8 points per game. “But when I got here, some things just overpower in those situations.”
“The coaching staff, the facilities and the players and stuff like that,” Early said. “I felt the vibe. You can go somewhere – sometimes it’s like when you meet a girl. She might have everything, and you’re like, ‘Man, I really, really like her.’ Then you meet someone else and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to marry her,’ you know what I’m saying? It’s one of those things where you look back and you’re like, ‘Dang, I wish I could keep both of you.’ But you’ve got to make a choice.”
Shockers expect alert Zags
Wichita State’s players and coaches were part of the crowd that watched 16th-seeded Southern make a run at Gonzaga on Thursday before eventually falling 64-58 to the Bulldogs.
There are some who believe such a close first-round game proves Gonzaga’s vulnerability as a top seed. The Shockers are not among them.
“I think Gonzaga was probably just getting their jitters out,” Hall said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to play that way against us. They might have the time of their life against us. You never know what’s going through their head coming into this game either. We’ve got to lock in and come ready to play on the defensive end.”
“Maybe they just kind of played to the competition level,” Armstead offered.
Marshall thought Southern’s upset bid said more about the Jags than it did about the Zags.
“They had their scare,” Marshall said. “They’ll be fine. They’ll come out ready to play. I’m not concerned about that.”