PORTLAND, Ore. — Last season’s NIT championship toughened Wichita State and showed the Shockers what it takes to win game after game against good competition.
Another tournament toughened the Shockers while they played in the NIT. They watched the NCAA Tournament, watched Virginia Commonwealth advance to the Final Four and pondered the cruelty of the whistle and the clock.
“We watched it, and we knew we probably could have done the same things they did,” WSU senior Ben Smith said. “They were a great team. They played well. Hopefully, we can do the same thing.”
The Shockers open the NCAA Tournament labeled by the national media as a team with the talent and experience to be this season’s George Mason, Butler or VCU and come out of a low-profile conference to shake up brackets. To be this season’s VCU, first WSU must beat this season’s VCU, its opponent Thursday in a South Region second-round game.
Oh, the bittersweet memories of last season. On March 31, WSU won the NIT in New York. Two days later, VCU, a team that nipped the Shockers 68-67 on free throws in the final seconds of a late February game in Wichita, played in the Final Four. Connecticut, a team WSU led by nine points with 9:55 remaining before losing 83-79, joined the Rams in Houston and won the NCAA title by beating Butler.
“We felt like we were supposed to win (the VCU) game, and we were looking at it like ‘That could have been us,’ ” junior guard Demetric Williams said. “That’s another thing that motivated us this year. We saw how far they took their run, and we felt like we were just as good or better.”
Wichita State can prove it this March. Landing in a bracket with Kentucky lowered expectations for a deep run, but the Shockers remain a favorite to reach the Sweet 16 and play in Atlanta. The element of surprise disappeared from the Shocker resume in late February after routs of Creighton and Davidson.
“It doesn’t really bother me,” Smith said. “It probably will put pressure on us, but we’re not going to think about it. We’ve just got to play our game, how we always play.”
Thanks a lot, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated, who picked the Shockers in the Final Four before the brackets came out. Cool down, Sporting News, which calls WSU the mid-major most likely to crash the Final Four. Jim O’Connell of The Associated Press picks WSU to defeat Virginia Commonwealth, New Mexico State, Connecticut and Duke on its way to New Orleans.
The national media is telling college basketball fans from Syracuse to San Diego what Wichitans figured out in early January, if not before. The Shockers are good almost all nights, great on some and capable of winning NCAA Tournament games.
“You definitely hear it, but that’s just all talk,” WSU senior Toure Murry said. “Those are some great teams, and they beat some very good teams. We’ll see.”
George Mason started the 2006 NCAAs seeded No. 11 before marching to the Final Four. VCU earned a No. 11 seed last season, many mocked their inclusion as an at-large team and the Rams had to play in a First Four game just to make the main bracket. Butler, a No. 5 seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed in 2011, is a closer comparison to WSU this season.
It is going to be hard to sneak past anybody as a No. 5 seed showered by love and written into the Sweet 16 by most analysts and fans. Davis backed off his Final Four pick when he saw WSU in the same bracket with No. 1 overall seed Kentucky. He still likes the Shockers to win two games, as do five of the eight experts picking for CBSSports.com.
“The fifth-seeded Shockers are the best mid-major team in the tournament,” ESPN.com’s Jason King wrote. “I think Gregg Marshall’s squad will advance all the way to the Sweet 16.”
WSU shares characteristics with all its would-be predecessors.
George Mason boasted an experienced big man in Jai Lewis and surrounded him with athletic defenders and shooters. The 2010 Butler team ranked fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings. WSU is No. 18 this season. The 2011 Bulldogs featured five seniors and three juniors on their roster, most of whom played prominent roles. WSU starts four seniors and a junior, with a fifth senior coming off the bench. VCU used its pressure defense and three-point shooting to frazzle opponents last season, a plan the Shockers can execute with the best of them.
The factor that most helps the Shockers is their experience. It allows all their other talents — height, quickness, shooting, long arms — to work together. Pomeroy’s statistical analysis rates WSU No. 10 in the nation for its combination of offensive efficiency (No. 10) and its defense.
In Pomeroy’s calculations, teams that average one point per possession are playing well and 1.2 means a team is outstanding. WSU checks in at 1.6. In old-fashioned basketball terms, those numbers mean WSU shoots the ball accurately, takes open shots, gets to the foul line frequently and rarely commits turnovers.
Seniors and juniors do those things regularly. Keep it up, and how knows how far WSU can go. Portland? Atlanta? New Orleans? The Shockers aren’t counting anything as impossible.
“They’re guys that have played some high-level basketball against some very good teams,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Our guys are ready for any challenge, and this will be a challenge.”