ATLANTA — For 40 minutes Saturday, Wichita State and Louisville will play basketball.
It won’t be about hype or Cinderella, it will be about two outstanding college teams playing for a spot in Monday night’s national championship game.
Wichita State, some say, doesn’t belong on this stage. They are not one of the blue bloods.
But the Shockers belong. The Shockers have a basketball tradition worthy of this stage. Shocker basketball is the most defining sports entity in the history of Wichita and many of the fans who wear their black and yellow to the Georgia Dome today are living witness.
From Gene Johnson to Cleo Littleton to Dave Stallworth to Xavier McDaniel – and now to Gregg Marshall and a rugged group of players making their own history – Shocker basketball has been a binding part of Wichita’s culture for decades.
This moment, though, is almost too big to grasp. Nobody – and I’ll call you a liar if you say differently – expected this.
Not from a team picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. Not from a team that lost its five leading scorers from 2011-12. Not from a team that had won two NCAA Tournament games in the past 32 years with both coming during a Sweet 16 run in 2006.
The Shockers aren’t Valley champions. They did not win the Valley tournament in St. Louis last month. Creighton has both of those titles. But Creighton lost to Duke in the third round of the NCAA Tournament and has been sitting at home for a couple of weeks.
Kansas lost to Michigan. Kansas State lost to La Salle.
The Shockers keep beating their drum.
Inspired by the little guys who came before them – George Mason, Butler, VCU – they believe they can win. It’s a belief strengthened by wins over Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State.
Remember how the strength and defense of Pitt was supposed to overwhelm Wichita State? No problem, the Shockers won by 18 points.
Gonzaga was the No. 1 team in the country coming into the NCAA Tournament. The Zags had lost twice and featured an All-America center, 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, and a bunch of other players the Shockers supposedly couldn’t match up against.
But WSU bolted to a 13-point first-half lead. Things got a little hairy midway through the second half, when the Shockers fell behind by eight. But WSU caught fire, making one three-point shot after another. Gonzaga fell.
La Salle proved to be the easiest touch for WSU, which won by 14.
Then the Shockers slapped around Ohio State, from the country’s best and most-feared conference. The Buckeyes did finally make a game of it late, but the Big Shot Shocks won 70-66 to advance to their first Final Four in 48 years.
And here they are, an overnight sensation 107 years in the making.
The Shockers have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and featured in USA Today. They have been interviewed by Jim Rome, Dan Patrick and Jim Nantz, among dozens of others who have been eager to get to the bottom of this basketball mystery.
They have been referred to as “Witchita” State. They have had to repeatedly explain their nickname and their mascot. They have been barraged with “Wizard of Oz” references. They have made a fight song that failed to gain traction in their own arena during the regular season but is a national phenomenon during the postseason.
You don’t want to go to war with the Shockers. It’s true.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino is leading the country’s No. 1 overall seed against Wichita State. He calls the Shockers “Marquette on steroids,” in reference to WSU’s defensive prowess. He knows a war will ensue, but has no choice other than to engage.
Here in Atlanta, hundreds of proud Shocker fans will start chanting and clapping and doing whatever they can to contain their nervous energy an hour or two before the 5:09 p.m. tip. They will gather to talk about the miraculous ride.
There are more WSU basketball fans than there were three weeks ago, but that’s OK. It goes with the territory. This bandwagon has plenty of room and you don’t need to apologize for jumping on.
This is a Wichita State basketball story, but more than that it’s a Wichita story. I’ve been on the road with WSU throughout the NCAA Tournament and I’ve seen reporters from other cities scratch their heads as they try to figure this out.
Yes, Wichita. It’s the biggest city in Kansas. We have running water and electricity. We even got automobiles a few years ago.
With little exception, the Shockers have been a quality basketball program. But even in the lean years, fans stuck by this program. They grumbled, they groused, but they mostly hung around with the promise of a better day.
And better days arrived. Today is the best day. Today is a day unlike any other in the history of Wichita, which has always loved and appreciated Shocker basketball but is now united by it.
To borrow a line from my favorite broadcaster, Jack Buck, “Go crazy, folks. Go crazy.”