- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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WICHITA, Kan. -- When you make the 161-mile drive from Lawrence to Wichita, you sense you're leaving one of the most passionate places in college basketball -- and easily one of its top five jobs -- for destination unknown.
The rolling wheat fields, the few cows that dot the landscape, the endless straightaway highway, make you wonder whether there really could be something special, something worth it at the end of this mind-numbing stretch.
When you arrive back into civilization, though -- pulling up to Charles Koch Arena on Wichita State's campus, where the parking lot is overflowing and there are hundreds of fans at a pregame carnival outside -- you realize you are still in Kansas.
And that, by definition, means you're around some of the most devoted basketball fans in the country.
So, when you step inside for a free event called "Shocker Madness" that introduces the men's and women's basketball teams for the 2006-07 season and you see a sparkling 10,478-seat arena, three-quarters filled with fans, mostly clad in bumblebee yellow and black, you start to understand.
But it isn't until the lights go dark, and the spotlight is on the banners high above the court, where the Missouri Valley Conference championship from 2006 is uncovered, and the 2006 NCAA Tournament banner, then the Sweet 16 one, too, that you get it.
You can't hear your phone ring. You have trouble talking to the person next to you. You now entirely comprehend why coach Mark Turgeon didn't fully pursue openings at Oklahoma, Arizona State and Nebraska.
You also understand why Wichita State athletic director Jim Schaus signed Turgeon to a contract extension through 2016 at a high-majorish mark of $750,000 a year.
You're not at KU anymore, but you're still in Kansas. You're at Wichita State, easily one of the biggest hidden gem jobs in the country.
Say that a few years ago and you might have been mocked. But four straight postseason berths, capped by last season's Sweet 16 run with wins over the Big East's Seton Hall and the SEC's Tennessee, suddenly have thrust Wichita State back into relevancy -- and there's no reason to think the Shockers will spin back toward obscurity.
"When I came here, I wasn't so sure [about the atmosphere and support]," said senior Kyle Wilson, who is from Plano, Texas, and grew up going to Kansas and Texas games as well as conference tournaments. "I've seen the big-time atmospheres, and it's no different here. Our fans are as crazy as anywhere. This is a heck of a place to play basketball. What's not as fair is that people don't see it unless they live in Kansas since we don't get many of our games nationally televised."
Fourteen of 16 home games were sold out last season. Every home date is said to be sold out for this season, and you can't get a seat without being a donor, as well. According to Schaus, enrollment is up at the school, licensing has doubled, and the rise in community interest is immeasurable.
This is a place where the makeover of WuShock, the school's floppy wheat-head mascot, was front page news Sunday in The Wichita Eagle (his costume is 12 pounds lighter, the head weight went down from 12 pounds to 5, and he has never felt so comfortable in his own skin, but we digress).
"Seven years ago, maybe you thought you couldn't win here," Schaus said of the time when the Shockers were the worst team in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference. "It's critical that we kept Mark. A sport like men's basketball is worth 3-4 million [dollars] to our school. You can't put a price on what a Sweet 16 does."
Schaus went on to illustrate that the opportunity before the Shockers can't be missed. He envies Gonzaga's road to national appeal, rankings and overall status in the sport. He knows mimicking the Zags is unrealistic. Still, "We believe we have a lot of elements to sustain this program for years to come. We don't view ourselves as a mid-major. We view ourselves as a major program."
This isn't spin. Check out the locker room, meeting rooms, coach's offices and practice gym, and you'll see that the amenities here rival the majority of programs within the "big six" conferences. Seriously, the facilities are comparable to Connecticut's and Boston College's and better than, say, Washington State's.
Wichita State is trying to create separation within the Missouri Valley, at least along with Creighton. It's doable without the directional name (see: Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois) and with plenty more financial backing. Creighton pays coach Dana Altman an estimated $800,000, just a bit more than Turgeon. Remember, Northern Iowa capped out at $350,000 for Greg McDermott before he took a richer salary at Iowa State last spring.
Wichita State has history with its coaches (Ralph Miller, Gene Smithson and Eddie Fogler) as well as with winning (two Elite Eights and a Final Four), but the Shockers weren't much to sing about before Turgeon's arrival; the school's last bid to the NCAAs had been in 1988.
Turgeon admittedly didn't think much about Wichita when he was growing up in Topeka. He certainly wasn't mindful of the Shockers when he was at Kansas, playing under Larry Brown. Coaching at Wichita wasn't even something he looked at as a destination when he was making his tour of the profession as an assistant from KU to Oregon to the NBA in Philadelphia, to being a head coach for the first time at Jacksonville State. After counseling with mentors Brown and Roy Williams, though, he saw a pull back to his home state and suddenly wanted to make an attempt at resuscitating a once-proud program.
Now, he might never leave, although his players were convinced there was a strong chance he was gone after they were eliminated by George Mason in the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C.
"It was the perfect opportunity for him to leave," junior guard P.J. Couisnard said. "But he picked us over more money and bigger schools. It says a lot about this program, this school and this city."
"Honestly, I didn't know what he was going to do since there were so many rumors running around," senior Ryan Martin said.
"I was trying not to think about it because I knew it could happen," Wilson said. "Coaches in these situations leave. We didn't know anything until he announced it at our banquet [in mid-April]. The whole place erupted. We were all excited, because for a few weeks he hadn't said anything and we were worried.
"I know he's worked his butt off to get this program where it is now and we can compete with anybody in atmosphere, and talent," Wilson added. "He's established himself here, so why go somewhere else and rebuild."
Turgeon said he never thought two years ago that the Shockers would be where they are. But as soon as they got to the Sweet 16, he worked harder than ever. The Shockers got Gal Mekel, an Israeli guard, over Providence and USC. Mekel said he chose Wichita State solely because of Turgeon. Although he won't start, he'll add critical depth this season.
As the signing date for the class of 2007 approaches next month, the Shockers also just picked up a commitment from 6-foot-9 Denzel Bowles, a player who had some mid- and high-major interest and could end up being a steal. They are also in the mix for Chris Barnes out of Atlanta, along with Kentucky, Oklahoma and Georgia.
"When I made the commitment to Wichita State, I didn't want to stay where we are," Turgeon said. "I want to make it better. I always felt that Jim would take care of me. I didn't know it would be to the degree he did. Twelve of the 13 trips we're taking this year will be on a charter [plane], as compared to six last year. We're doing things that make it more appealing for recruits to come.
"I'm a little more comfortable now that we have accomplished something. I'm more relaxed, and it's kind of nice not having to raise money, which I had to do for the first five years. We want to be a Top 25 program every year."
Do that and you've become another Gonzaga. First, the Shockers must prove last season wasn't just a one-year flirtation with being a national program.
Sure, they lost the Valley player of the year in big man Paul Miller, but the Shockers return everyone else, led by Wilson, one of the better scorers at his position, and as sound a backcourt as any in the country with Couisnard, Matt Braeuer, Karon Bradley and the best shooter in the bunch, Sean Ogirri. Ogirri's name doesn't resonate, but his marksmanship should because he made 91 3s and shot 44.2 percent from the arc as a sophomore.
The Shockers don't have a low-post lock, but they'll be quicker and maybe more balanced.
"We'll be better than last year," Couisnard said.
They're also conscious of not being a one-hit wonder.
"If we have a bad year, then all of a sudden everyone will forget about the Sweet 16 year," Wilson said.
The Shockers might not compile the same record as last season (26-9) because they play a better nonconference schedule, with road games at George Mason, LSU, Syracuse and Wyoming as well as games in Las Vegas against New Mexico and either Kansas State or USC. That might mean, though, that they'll be even more prepared for the grinding Valley chase, as well as the NCAA Tournament.
One thing is certain: Turgeon and the Shockers are on their way to becoming national names.
"I'm at a place where they love basketball and are passionate about basketball, and that gives you a chance to be successful," Turgeon said. "I've got one of the top jobs in the country because of the following we have."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
You might not think of Wichita State as a national program, but you may have to soon, Andy Katz writes.