LOS ANGELES — Maybe before anybody else, Wichita State senior Malcolm Armstead believed in a deep NCAA Tournament run.
He started thinking about it last March, when he wished the 2012 team well in the NCAA Tournament while helping them prepare during a redshirt season. He thought about it more in the summer, when he determined the Shockers needed to advance farther in the tournament in 2013.
“The goal is to try to get to Atlanta,” he said. “This is a dream come true and now it’s 40 minutes away.”
Ninth-seeded Wichita State (29-8) starts its 40-minute journey to history against second-seeded Ohio State (29-7) on Saturday at Staples Center in the West Regional final. The winner advances to the Final Four in Atlanta, meeting the champion of the Midwest Regional.
The Shockers will play in a regional final for the first time since 1981, in pursuit of a second Final Four berth to add to the 1965 success story.
“We’re just trying to make history,” WSU guard Demetric Williams said. “We know what we’re capable of. We look at each other as a team that can be in the national championship game.”
There is no reason to think any other way when your team is one of eight remaining in the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers handled Big East bully Pittsburgh in their NCAA opener. They knocked off No. 1 Gonzaga. They dominated La Salle on Thursday in the Sweet 16.
“They definitely deserve to be here,” Ohio State guard Aaron Craft said. “If someone doesn’t think they do, I don’t know what they’re watching.”
Wichita State’s defense carried it into the NCAA Tournament, earning an at-large bid with fierce efforts in wins over VCU, Iowa, Southern Mississippi and Creighton. The Shockers are still playing because the offense is catching up.
In three NCAA games, WSU is averaging 73.7 points and shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range, all numbers improved from the regular season.
For significant stretches, the Shockers are cranking on offense in ways they rarely did just a few weeks ago. They scored 73 points against Pittsburgh, despite missing 18 of 20 threes, to become the third team to break 70 points against the Panthers. They rallied past Gonzaga with eight minutes of almost flawless execution, including 5-for-5 shooting from three-point range. They dismantled La Salle by making seven of their first eight shots to build a 14-2 lead.
When La Salle created a mild threat in the second half, WSU scored on five consecutive possessions.
The return of guard Ron Baker, who missed 21 games with a stress fracture in his left foot, is the driving force behind the improvement. Baker is averaging 11.7 points in the tournament, making half his shots and 42.9 percent of his threes. His nine assists rank second behind Armstead’s 12.
“We’ve been challenged to score all year long, but we get Ron Baker going now, and he’s a difference maker,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s a shot maker. Ron Baker the shot maker.”
Four players are averaging in double figures for WSU in the tournament, led by Armstead’s 16 and followed closely by Cleanthony Early at 15.
“They’ve got guys that can do a lot of things, from shooting the ball to driving the ball,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “They’re very sound in terms of their execution. They’ve got a good mix of — they’ll hit you in transition, but then they can also pull it out and run the sets.”
It is those sets that may determine how WSU’s success against the Buckeyes. With short preparation time, the Shockers need those plays to catch Ohio State off guard and produce open shots. Grinding against the bigger Buckeyes and trying to win one-on-one matchups will be a tough way to play.
“They have a ton of sets,” Craft said. “You can’t prepare for all of them, so you really have to rely a lot on your defensive scheme. Any time you can steal a bucket, like they have been, an easy layup here or there, that’s big.”
In Missouri Valley Conference games, defenses are prepared for WSU’s plays and can often know what is coming as soon as the Shockers call it.
In tournaments, those plays can give WSU a crucial cushion of scoring. Baker estimates about 40 percent of its scoring comes from sets. He also sees improvement in the motion offense.
“There is a lot more movement on the offensive end,” he said. “We’re screening bodies and getting teammates open looks more productively than we were. We’re understanding what you can do as a player, if you free up someone else.”
Wichita State is still about defense and rebounding. Just in time for a trip to the Final Four, however, the Shockers are adding more offense.