SALT LAKE CITY — Wichita State’s basketball history can beat the rarity of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament playing a close game in the opening round.
The Shockers haven’t played a No. 1 seed in the tournament in more than 30 years, and their last game against a team ranked atop the Associated Press poll came in December 1967, when WSU was drubbed by dynastic UCLA.
So while top-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga was reeling some from its narrow victory over Southern on Thursday, Wichita State was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to test itself against the nation’s best. The teams meet Saturday in the tournament’s third round, WSU’s first tournament game against a No. 1 seed since LSU in the 1981 Midwest Regional final, won 96-85 by the Tigers.
"That’s something that I’m going to remember probably for the rest of my life," WSU freshman guard Ron Baker said after the Shockers beat Pittsburgh and before Gonzaga survived the Southern scare. "I remember hearing Gonzaga growing up, watching them. Saturday I get to play against one of the No. 1 teams in the country.
"Twenty years from now I’ll look back on it, and hopefully it’ll be a good memory for us."
After Gonzaga’s win Thursday, star center Kelly Olynyk was asked about matching up with WSU’s post players and replied that he didn’t know their names.
Before Olynyk could get too far with anything the Shockers could perceive as disrespectful, coach Mark Few interrupted to say that the Bulldogs’ scouting efforts were focused exclusively on Southern.
If the Shockers take their anonymity to Olynyk as a slight, it could play into their role as comfortable underdogs, a team languishing among the middle seeds in the tournament who many expect to be dispatched by one of the best.
"That’s fine," Baker said. "We can come in under the radar, that’s fine with us. We just want to play defense and rebound like we did tonight and just play hard and hope for the best against a really good Gonzaga team."
A close first game doesn’t usually spell trouble for No. 1 seeds in the next round. All of the last 11 No. 1s to win their first tournament game by 15 points or fewer won their next game, with an average victory margin of just more than 13 points. Five such teams advanced to the Final Four and two won the national championship.
With history perhaps by their side, Gonzaga didn’t appear worried about its third-round prospects. A week-and-a-half layoff since the West Coast Conference tournament may have contributed to a relatively sluggish effort.
"Any win in the tournament is a good win," Olynyk said. "So we have to kind of take that into consideration and then move forward. We’ve got some stuff we can work on. We can improve. Hopefully we got the cobwebs off from the conference tournament and we will continue to get better."
Wichita State senior guard Demetric Williams conceded that a game against Gonzaga, one of the best programs of the last 15 years but not a traditional powerhouse, wouldn’t carry the same excitement as playing Duke or Kansas or Kentucky.
A game against one of those teams, however, wouldn’t necessarily provide the Shockers the opportunity facing them Saturday — advancement to the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven years and a win over a No. 1 team for the second time in program history. WSU beat top-ranked Cincinnati during the 1964-65 season.
"It’s a humbling experience," Williams said. "Being able to play the No. 1 seed on our side, how many chances do you get to do that? We just have to go out there and focus on our task. They’ve got to lace up their shoes just like we do, so we’ll just go out and play."