LOS ANGELES — Wichita State is going to the Final Four and it’s OK if you just want to read those eight words over and over again without getting to the rest of this column.
Because that’s really all that matters.
Oh, and Gregg Marshall, the Shockers’ coach, has to go now, even though he really didn’t want to.
There’s a story there, of course.
Marshall gave up his Atlanta reservations a few weeks ago after he learned that his daughter, Maggie, was going to be playing in a middle-school volleyball tournament in Kansas City next weekend.
“Lynn (Marshall’s wife) and I just looked at each other and said, ‘You know what, we’re not going to the Final Four this year,’ ” Marshall said. “We’ll go to Napa or somewhere later on, a beach vacation, but we’re just not gonna go to the Final Four. The seats they give you in those domed stadiums – you can’t even see the games.’’
There has been a change of plans. Marshall is going to the Final Four, thanks to the Shockers’ 70-66 win over Ohio State on Saturday night, and he’s taking some back-up — a bunch of blood-thirsty players who don’t seem to know they’re not supposed to be doing this.
If you’re looking for the Shockers to swing from chandeliers because of their NCAA run, then you’re going to be disappointed. There’s some celebration, don’t get me wrong, but the party hasn’t started. The Wichita State players think there’s more to be done.
Why not? There are no rules, last I checked, against Wichita State winning it all.
How is this happening? There’s no logical explanation, but the best guess is that it’s about WSU’s grit, determination, will, toughness and all of the things your parents told you are good to have when you were a kid. And then you went back to watching cartoons.
These Shockers didn’t. They took toughness to heart. They figure that what they lack in size, talent and skill, they can make up for with guts.
They’re quiet, steely-eyed killers.
This ride to the Elite Eight was supposed to come to end of the line as WSU ran into a big, bad Ohio State team from the Big Ten, which people have been telling us all season has the best of college basketball.
You didn’t want the Road to the Final Four to be a cake walk, did you? What fun would that be?
So as a 20-point second-half lead for the Shockers was whittled to three with almost three minutes left, and traffic on the streets of Wichita, I’m sure, came to a standstill — it was logical to wonder whether WSU had finally run out of gas.
But then sophomore Tekele Cotton made a three-pointer. And freshman Fred VanVleet made a runner inside the lane that bounced off the rim a few times before going in the basket. And sophomore Ron Baker made two free throws like he was shooting them back in the Scott City High gym.
Lynn Marshall had to leave her seat as Ohio State clawed its way back into the game. That’s not unusual; she’s a little high strung during games. But she was on the floor celebrating with her husband and anybody else’s husband she could find. The celebration on the floor and the cutting down of the nets is historic for a program that hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1965.
And if anybody would have said this team would be the first in 48 years to break that streak, you’d have laughed at them. The Shockers lost their five leading scorers from last season’s team that was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They were picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. Then, after a hot start, three starters went down with injuries.
The Shockers are why you love sports. The national media is scrambling to tell this story, but it’s one the fan base knows well.
Even through lean times, they’ve been faithful to a tradition built on decades of success. And one of the reasons the Shockers have remained such a Wichita thing for so long is because of the first Final Four team in 1964-65. I spent much of Saturday thinking about that team, which made it to Portland and lost to eventual national champion UCLA by 19 points.
But it was without its star, Dave Stallworth, whose eligibility ran out at the semester break. The Shockers took a team without a starter taller than 6-foot-5 and took its shot with the likes of Jamie Thompson and Kelly Pete.
This season’s Shocker team is going to take its shot, too. And at this point isn’t it a little silly to discount Wichita State’s chances?
Louisville or Duke will be Wichita State’s opponent in Atlanta. Both have won multiple national championships and are coached by legends, Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski. Even so, whichever coach has to game plan for Wichita State will have some sleepless nights.
The Shockers won’t go quietly. They’re too good, with too many good players.
Is Malcolm Armstead as NBA player? I ask that question seriously, even though I wouldn’t have asked it a month ago.
Cleanthony Early dominated his matchup with Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas early Saturday, when the Shockers were establishing themselves. Carl Hall, to repeat myself, is a beast. Baker is from Scott City, but that’s the only thing small-town about the kid. And Cotton — I don’t even have words for Cotton.
He couldn’t shoot, so he taught himself to shoot. His three-pointer with 2:18 left was a re-boot for the Shockers, who were quickly going offline. He had a key offensive rebound in the final minute that allowed the Shockers to run more precious seconds off the clock. And, as usual, Cotton defended as if protecting the reputation of a loved one.
The Shockers belong in the Final Four. There is nothing fluky about what this team is doing in March. No Cinderella story here so keep moving.
The return of Baker from a foot injury that sidelined him for 21 games seems to have been the ingredient that has caused this team to boil. The Shockers’ chemistry should be listed on the periodic table.
They have been better than every team the NCAA Tournament has put in front of them and neither Louisville nor Duke are going to scare Wichita State because Wichita State doesn’t scare.
Ohio State is the most physical team the Shockers have played against all season. They overcame. The same way they overcame the Big East toughness of Pittsburgh, the No. 1 team in the country, Gonzaga, and an out-matched La Salle.
Wichita State can play. And the Shockers will next be playing in Atlanta, on college basketball’s biggest stage. The Final Four.