In one of the signs Wichita State men’s basketball is in a golden era, the Shockers are talking about not taking NCAA Tournament bids for granted.
“It’s a great honor; a lot of people don’t even get there one time,” senior Demetric Williams said. “For me to get there twice, it’s a humbling experience.”
Savor that, Shocker fans. WSU is back in the NCAA Tournament, as an at-large pick in what was expected to be a rebuilding season, with plenty of room to spare.
Ninth-seeded WSU (26-8) will play eighth-seeded Pittsburgh (24-8) on Thursday in Salt Lake City in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner will play top-seeded Gonzaga (31-2), or 16th-seeded Southern (23-9) in event of a history-shaking upset.
“A lot of teams don’t get to come, so it’s a great opportunity,” senior forward Carl Hall said.
Players and coaches watched the selection show in the Koch Arena Champions Club, with friends, family and staff members. CBS unveiled the West Region last. While WSU’s resume made it an easy choice for inclusion, the wait raised the anxiety level in the room.
Coach Gregg Marshall kept track on a notepad, circling at-large competitors as the brackets filled. He saw openings in the middle seeds for the Shockers even as slots filled in three regions.
“I didn’t anticipate them forgetting about us,” he said. “They’re too good for that at the NCAA. I just knew that our resume was strong enough.”
Pittsburgh also earned an at-large spot, losing in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. The Panthers, who will join the ACC next season, finished fourth in the Big East and compiled a power ranking (RPI) ranked No. 43.
Pitt went 4-7 against RPI teams in the top 50 and 5-0 against teams ranked 51-100. Its best wins came at second-seeded Georgetown (73-45) and against fourth-seeded Syracuse (65-55).
WSU, No. 37 in the RPI, went 3-2 against the top 50 and 5-3 against teams ranked 51-100.
The teams played three common opponents, all victories. Pitt defeated Howard (70-46), Detroit (74-61) and DePaul (93-55 and 81-66). WSU defeated Howard (69-50), Detroit (94-79) and DePaul (75-62).
WSU played the Panthers in 2009, losing 68-55 in Kansas City, Mo. It will face a Big East team for the ninth time since 2003 after splitting the previous eight games.
Pitt leads the 15-team Big East in scoring defense (allowing 55.4 points), rebound margin (plus-7.1) and shooting percentage (47.5). ESPN commentators Jay Bilas and Jay Williams described the game as a physical battle between two top rebounding teams on the network’s analysis of the brackets.
“Off the top of my head, a lot of tough-minded man to man,” Marshall said. “A very physical, strong team that works to get the best shot they can. They’re not in any hurry. The game could be in the 50s.”
The Shockers are making their 10th NCAA appearance and third in the past seven seasons. They will go in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1987 and 1988. The Shockers last won an NCAA game in 2006, when they defeated Seton Hall and Tennessee.
Pitt made 11 straight NCAA appearances before missing last season. Coach Jamie Dixon guided the Panthers to nine tournaments in his 10 seasons. Marshall is making his ninth NCAA trip, seven with Winthrop.
A year ago, fifth-seeded WSU lost to 12th-seeded VCU, a missed opportunity that lingers on the minds of many players.
“We had a better seed last year and lost the first game,” Hall said. “We’ve got to get ready to play. We know what to expect now, the jitters and everything.”