WICHITA, Kan. -- At the start of the season, Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, his coaches and his players each made two lists of goals -- personal and academic for the players, personal and professional for the coaches.
Then Steve Dickie, the team chaplain and character coach, asked them to boil those goals into one word that would define their season.
Marshall's word: appreciate.
"I don't want to wait until I'm 70, sitting on the beach and looking for a buddy to drink a beer and try to remember it all,'' Marshall said. "I want to appreciate now.''
Should he succeed, should he and his players enjoy the moments as they are actually occurring, that might be an even greater accomplishment than what Wichita State is doing on the court.
The Shockers are currently No. 4 in the country, ninth in the RPI, 12th in the BPI and passing every eye test as well as I test.
But above all else, they are undefeated, standing alongside Syracuse as the lone teams left without a blemish.
Alongside and yet separate, that is. Separate because for Syracuse, this will all come along again. Maybe not undefeated into February, but national relevance, a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, those things are as certain as snow falling in central New York.
For Wichita State, who knows? Who knows when three national reporters will make the ride from Lawrence to Wichita in three successive days as they did last month? Who knows when the Shockers will see their name along a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology again? Who knows when anyone will be talking about Wichita State again?
That's not a knock on a reliable and well-constructed program but the reality of the dollars and cents of college sports. Ten years ago, Saint Joseph's triumphantly marched into the Atlantic 10 tournament with a perfect 27-0 record, the first team to finish the regular season unscathed since UNLV in 1991. The Hawks have made it back to the NCAA tournament just once since.
Two years ago, Murray State rolled to a 23-0 mark before losing in early February. Last season, the Racers didn't make it to the postseason.
"I don't know if I would put the word enjoyment on it,'' St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "I was amazed by it. ... And I used to agonize over the fact that my players were so non-pulsed, that I was hoping and praying they were enjoying it, that they realized they were walking on a path that very few athletes, forget college basketball players, had walked. I really wrestled with, 'What does this mean for our guys?'"
That's the funny thing about a goose egg in the L column.
Every coach, every athlete sets out to win every game, and yet when it happens, when one victory steamrolls into another and the schedule grows shorter, the big fat zero starts to feel more like an albatross than an accomplishment.
It can be constraining and all-consuming at the same time, so massive that people actually wonder if it would be better for a team to lose, which flies in the face of the entire concept of competition ("So H&R Block does 11,000 perfect tax returns, they should throw in a bad one once in a while just to take off the pressure?'' Martelli said).