LOS ANGELES — Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall name-dropped Cal Bruton on Friday. On Saturday, he shouted out to all the Shocker fans who stuck with the team during the win-challenged 1990s.
So we know Marshall knows more about WSU’s up-and-down basketball history than most. We also know Wichita State’s basketball history doesn’t match Syracuse, Louisville or Michigan. Deal with it, college basketball bluebloods. It doesn’t bother Marshall and it doesn’t bother his players.
They are living in the moment. The moment says they belong, most recently Saturday’s 70-66 win over second-seeded Ohio State.
The Shockers (30-8) are playing in the Final Four. Lots of prominent players from prominent schools will watch them on TV. It is incorrect to say nobody loved the Shockers. ESPN’s Dick Vitale jumped on the bandwagon early in the tournament. Seth Davis of CBS and Sports Illustrated picked them to beat Ohio State. Most people, however, are looking at busted brackets and wondering where this school came from after finishing second in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“All the things we had to overcome this season, all the people counting us out all year — just to upset all those people right now is the best feeling in the world,” Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet said.
WSU is in the Final Four for the first time since 1965. It is the first MVC team in the national semifinals since Indiana State in 1979. Last season’s team — a No. 5 seed that won the MVC title — figured to make a run. This team, well, the line of believers is much shorter. In October, even Marshall would have happily grabbed 20 wins and a spot in the NIT.
The Shockers started the tournament as an easy-to-overlook No. 9 seed. They defeated No. 8 Pittsburgh on a day full of upsets, including one by Harvard in the same arena in Salt Lake City. They upset top-seeded Gonzaga to grab center stage for a few moments. Florida Gulf Coast took over the next day.
“We’ve been under the radar,” guard Ron Baker said. “For us, it didn’t matter who we were playing. We just went out and played our game and we’ve been clicking.”
College basketball turns its attention on Atlanta and there is no escaping the spotlight for the Shockers. The other three teams started the season regarded as Final Four contenders. The Shockers, despite their modest pedigree, think they belong.
“We understand the fact that we’ve got to stay hungry and humble because we’ve got two more games left to be really excited about,” forward Cleanthony Early said. “It feels very good, and it feels even better that I can experience it with these guys.”
WSU will be the underdog again this weekend. Kindred spirits from lower-profile conferences prove that doesn’t have to happen. George Mason and VCU lost in the semifinals. Butler played for the NCAA title twice. Nothing comes easy in the Final Four, and here is what WSU must do to continue this run:
• Disciplined, lockdown, 40-minute defense.
Gonzaga’s offensive efficiency of 1.15 points per possession is the best in the nation (tied with Indiana). WSU held the Zags to 35.6 percent shooting (21 of 59) in a 76-70 win. Pittsburgh ranks eighth at 1.11 points per possession. WSU limited the Panthers to 35.2-percent shooting (19 of 54) in a 73-55 victory. In the Sweet 16, La Salle made eight baskets in the first half. Ohio State shot 31.1 percent (19 of 61), its second-lowest this season.
“They blocked a lot of our shots,” Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “They were beasts on the boards.”
In four games, opponents are shooting 34.3 percent from the field, 25.3 percent from three-point range.
• Disciplined, efficient offense.
The Shockers are making the most of their possessions with good outside shooting, careful ball-handling and free throws. They made 8 of 20 threes against Ohio State and are 26 of 60 (43.3 percent) against Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State. They are averaging 11.5 turnovers a game and making 76.9 percent of their foul shots in the tournament.
• Fast starts that hand WSU control of the game.
The Shockers tied Pittsburgh at the 10-minute mark of the tournament opener. They led every other opponent and led all four at halftime.
WSU out-rebounded Pitt, La Salle and Ohio State. When a 50-50 ball appeared, the Shockers grabbed it. Tekele Cotton’s offensive rebound in the final minutes defined WSU’s hustle. He beat a taller player for the ball and turned that possession into a crucial basket by VanVleet for a 67-61 lead.
“It was a huge athletic play by a really tough kid who makes those kind of plays,” Marshall said.
The Shockers will need many more of those on Saturday. If they make them, nobody should be surprised.
“I don’t think we’re Cinderella,” Marshall said. “Cinderella’s usually done by this stage. If you get to this point, you can win the whole thing.”