BOWLING GREEN — When Chris Jans arrived with head coach Gregg Marshall at Wichita State in spring, 2007, they took over a men’s basketball program that wasn’t exactly anonymous.
The Shockers had reached the NCAA’s Sweet 16 round just two seasons earlier. Wichita had been to the NCAA eight times at that point, with a Final Four appearance in 1965 and a trip to the Elite Eight in ’81.
It was a solid program in a very good mid-major league, the Missouri Valley Conference. Sellout crowds at the 10,000-seat on-campus arena, even during so-so seasons, were far more the rule than the exception.
So, now, Chris Jans has arrived as the head coach at Bowling Green, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1968 (the Mid-American Conference’s longest drought) and only once in a meager history has advanced out of the first round. The Stroh Center accommodates just 4,700 fans and some of those seats haven’t been dusted off by human derrieres for a men’s game since it opened in time for the 2011-12 season.
Yet, Jans sees no reason he can’t sprinkle some of the same magic dust on the Falcons that Marshall did at Wichita, which was a Final Four team two years ago (after beating Ohio State in the regional finals) and a No. 1 NCAA seed this past season with an undefeated record.
“Everybody has the same vision,” Jans said of college basketball coaches in general. “To implement it and see the results, of course, is a different story.”
He has seen those results from a front-row seat. He figures he knows the formula.
What some might see as obstacles he sees as opportunities.
“Wichita State had enjoyed pockets of success, maybe not sustained, but overall it was a good program,” Jans said. “But the question people asked was, ‘Why aren’t we Gonzaga? Why aren’t we Butler?’ And we, the coaches, felt the same way walking in the door. The fan base, the arena, the budget; we had everything required to play at that level.”
Then, in Marshall’s first season, the Shockers stumbled to an 11-20 record and Jans said the staff was “smacked in the face with a heavy dose of reality. It was very frustrating for coach Marshall, who had been in the NCAA seven in times in the previous nine seasons at Winthrop [University].
“But our first recruiting class was the backbone of improving. It was all about getting special players. Four years later [2010-11] we were NIT champions and that changed everything. It kind of put us on the map. When we called recruits we didn’t have to explain who we were.
“We didn’t go to coaching school and get smarter. We got better players. The approach will be similar here. We’re rolling our sleeves up, getting boots on the ground, and working our tails off every day, whether it’s recruiting, community relations, helping kids academically or on the floor. But the undercurrent of everything is recruiting.”
In his first month on the job at BG, Jans has put together an all-new coaching staff and is “four for four” in turning official visits into signed recruits.
Three of them are transfers from junior colleges, the level at which Jans won a national championship as a head coach earlier in his career.
“There are no pre-determined targets … JUCO, high school, transfers, prep school. It’s a matter of what’s right for each class and getting the best players who fit our style,” Jans said.
Now, for the obstacles: Wichita State is the only game in town and men’s hoops gets the lion’s share of the athletic resources. There is no football or hockey, both of which are Division I programs at BG and suck up much of the budget. The Missouri Valley has had multiple NCAA tournament bids 10 times since 2000, including four teams making the field in 2006. The MAC last received an at-large bid in 1998.
“I don’t know the historical figures, but last season the Missouri Valley was 11th in conference RPI and the MAC was 12th,” Jans said. “You take away Wichita State and I guarantee you the MAC would have been higher than the Valley. So, maybe, it’s not that far away. We won’t shy away from the goal of putting our program in position for an at-large. If we schedule right and get good players I don’t see why we can’t get our name in the discussion and make that a possibility here.
“As for the [internal] competition, I look forward to being at a school where there is success in other sports. That’s to our advantage if we use it in the right way. Football weekends, for example, are big for recruiting and in prospective players seeing how special the community and the school are.
“And, the resources, truthfully, you need more at Wichita State. We had a very diverse roster, very few coming from within a four-hour drive. Look at the fertile recruiting areas within four hours [of BG] — Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis. I don’t think the budget needs to be as large.”
Jans thinks the Stroh Center is the perfect size, albeit the smallest in the MAC. He likes the proximity of MAC opponents — “Here’s Wichita and here’s the rest of the Valley,” he said, holding his hands far apart, — and especially looks forward to having a primary rival, Toledo, just 25 miles up the road.
“I love it,” he said. “I think we’ll be involved in some fierce recruiting battles. Wichita was in a state with three Division I schools. How many play D-I basketball in Ohio? Thirteen, if I counted right. It should be a lot of fun. If we do our job, the Stroh Center should be a tough ticket. I’ve been at a place like that. There’s nothing better than people scrambling to get in the door. We want to create a special atmosphere.”
Jans knows Bowling Green once had a house that roared. Why not another?
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.