SALT LAKE CITY — With one more win, Wichita State basketball won’t need to worry about becoming the next Gonzaga. Wichita State can be quite happy being Wichita State.
The Shockers play Gonzaga on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament with the West Region bracket opening favorably for the winner. Fifth-seeded Wisconsin and fourth-seeded Kansas State lost in back-to-back upsets in Kansas City on Friday. On the lower half of the bracket, third-seeded New Mexico is out after Thursday’s stunning loss to Harvard in EnergySolutions Arena.
Looks good for top-seeded Gonzaga (32-2). Or the ninth-seeded Shockers (27-8). The winner goes to the Sweet 16 and will face a double-digit seed in Los Angeles next week.
“This group thinks they can beat anyone in the country,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “They’re not intimidated. They’re not going to lose their confidence.”
The Shockers will face the nation’s No. 1-ranked team for the first time since 1967, when they lost to UCLA. On Friday, Marshall went on national radio shows, ESPN’s Dick Vitale predicted a Shocker victory and the players practiced and met with an increasingly curious media.
Thursday’s win over Pittsburgh moved the needle on Shocker attention. Beating Gonzaga makes the Shockers the biggest story of the tournament, at least until Harvard wins again.
“You can’t get caught up in the hype,” WSU guard Malcolm Armstead said. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball.”
Yes, and no. There is no diminishing Gonzaga’s offense or Wichita State’s defense. Those assets — linked with plenty of others — got those teams to this point. The Shockers face a team with a powerful front line, an NBA prospect at center and sweet shooting guards.
Gonzaga faces a team that, unlike most, doesn’t need to make shots to get excited about defense and rebounding.
“The first thing that comes to mind when you watch them is how tough they are,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re very confident. They’ve got a real belief, I think, not only in their defensive system, but their rebounding.”
Gonzaga hits the Shockers with Creighton-like choices, few of them pleasing. Center Kelly Olynyk, likely the main object of attention for NBA types such as Miami Heat president Pat Riley this weekend, averages 17.6 points and makes 64.7 percent of his shots. Guard Kevin Pangos makes 42.3 percent of his threes and guard Gary Bell is close behind at 39.4 percent.
It’s hard not to double-team Olynyk, but it’s also hard to leave shooters open for his passes. Don’t ignore forward Elias Harris, another NBA type who averages 14.6 points and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds.
“They’ve got a lot of great weapons,” Marshall said. “Olynyk is (Creighton’s) Doug McDermott with a couple of inches and more athleticism, minus the 50-something percent three-ball. He deserves a tremendous amount of attention. But then you’ve got Kevin Pangos, who is their guy that stirs the drink.”
Gonzaga’s reputation, fair or not, is that of a finesse team that loves to score and can be pushed around. This team is not that bunch of Bulldogs. They are holding teams to 38.2-percent shooting and out-rebound opponents by almost nine a game.
Olynyk, Harris and reserve forward Sam Dower can match up with any trio in the country, proven by out-rebounding all five Big 12 teams they’ve faced.
“This team has been much stronger as far as taking scouting reports and executing the plan,” Few said. “The way we grade our team defensively … and the kind of things we value, this has definitely been the best team in a while.”
On Thursday, the Shockers watched 16th-seeded Southern torment the Bulldogs before losing 64-58. They expect a better effort on Saturday.
“Maybe they just played to the level of their competition,” Armstead said. “I feel like they’re going to be ready.”
The Bulldogs, after avoiding the biggest upset in tournament history, studied WSU’s 73-55 win over Pittsburgh, a masterpiece of defense and rebounding.
“They took Pitt out of what they wanted to do,” Pangos said. “They’re a tough, physical team. We have to be physical and tough.”