The school colors? OK, they are decidedly small-time, a cross between the Buffalo Wild Wings logo and what’s hurled by someone with bronchitis. But everything else about Wichita State basketball is legitimate, serious and national-championship-worthy, and if you haven’t grasped that yet in these evolving collegiate times, only you will be shocked by the Shockers.
More than ever before, March Madness — which dips quite far into April Abandon this year — is truly a fool’s roulette wheel. What once was a party exclusive to bluebloods now is overrrun by upstarts. It should have been evident earlier this decade, when Butler went to back-to-back NCAA title games and came within an interfering rim of an all-time sports thunderbolt, that the idea of a “mid-major” program is more ancient than classic rock. As Gregg Marshall told a writer who dared to drop that bit of obsolescence the other day, “That `MM’ term that you used has been buried. I’m sure you saw that, but they had the funeral and everything. Last rites. It’s over.”
Such chutzpah is why we should love the Wichita State coach and his program, which come from a place I know little about other than Pizza Hut being founded there, Kirstie Alley still living there and Jack White singing he was going to Wichita to “work the saw” in the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” While skeptics say the Shockers haven’t faced one team that is currently ranked while playing the nation’s 113th-toughest schedule, they act and talk like a powerhouse that is 34-0, hasn’t lost since nearly beating eventual national champion Louisville in last year’s Final Four and rates as the first team to enter the big tournament undefeated since the potent 1991 UNLV team of Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon and Tark the Shark. Marshall thinks he can achieve the round, rhythmic 40-0 and win a title that would blow away everyone but the Shockers themselves.
“Wolves,” said Marshall, “do not fret over the opinions of sheep.”
He borrowed the quote from his senior forward, Chadrack Lufile, who said it two weeks ago in response to those doubting the team’s resume. If Wichita State hadn’t beaten Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, and Ohio State to reach the 2013 Final Four, maybe the sheep would have some cred. But it’s possible this team has forgotten how to lose. And while Billy Donovan has Florida playing like a machine and Duke will ride the magnificence of Jabari Parker, Wichita State oozes of audacity that, sometimes in this tournament, spins into invincibility. Notice how Joel Embiid, the 7-foot Kansas center, is out indefinitely with an ailing back, severely diminishing the Jayhawks’ chance of winning it all. Said Kansas coach Bill Self, in what sounded like a white flag of sorts: “The doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance.”
Fortunate enough to advance? The “other” team in Kansas — the best team in Kansas — is talking championship.
“We want to win it all,” said Cleanthony Early, the team’s best and perhaps only NBA prospect. “We understand a 34-0 season is just as rare as a Final Four, and what we’ve accomplished as a group is very special.”
What don’t they do well? An efficient, cohesive offense gets consistent inside production from Early, outside bombs from 5-10 Fred VanVleet and mid-range reliability from Ron Baker. Tekele Cotton, an elite defender, had 20 points in a victory over Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game. Kadeem Colby is the rim protector, with six blocks in the same game. They are so well-coached and so familiar with each other, through two seasons of high-level excellence, that they firmly believe they can beat anyone in the college game. Florida is ranked No. 1 nationally. Wichita State is demanding a recount.
“You can debate what you want to debate. Facts are facts, truth is truth,” said VanVleet, the MVC player of the year. “We’re not into debating how good or great we are or how bad somebody else us. That’s for barber shop talk and coffee table arguments. We’re not into that stuff. If they feel that way, it’s on them. And nobody that’s arguing about it is on the selection committee.”
While we sometimes wonder if those NCAA committee members sit around in their boxer shorts, order pizza and watch porn, it’s difficult to believe they’ll do anything but make Wichita State the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region. That means they’ll probably be back in St. Louis, where they won the conference championship, and possibly be on a collision course to play Kansas in the Midwest final. We’re assuming the state of Kansas would still exist after that game, but maybe not. The schools haven’t played since 1993 — what would a national power like Kansas have to gain from scheduling Wichita State, where a win would be expected and a loss would be a disaster? — and Marshall has weighed in by describing the Jayhawks as “Chickenhawks.” Once the brackets are filled, Bill Self can’t chicken out any longer.
Such is the cheekiness of Marshall, whose last nine victories have been by double digits. “We’re not flawless, but our record is flawless,” he said. “We’ve got great players. They’ve taken us on an unbelievable ride to this point.”
His attitude rubs off on his players. The ride, VanVleet says, won’t stop this time in the national semifinals. “Going undefeated,” he said, “happens way more rarely than going to the Final Four.”
When you’ve won 34 straight, what are six more?