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Expectations set Shockers’ bar higher than ever

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, at 1:28 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, at 9:48 a.m.

In 2011, the National Invitation Tournament grabbed Wichita State fans in a big way. They lined up for tickets and sold out a game against the College of Charleston. Hundreds traveled to New York for the final and some equated the championship with making the NCAA Tournament.

Quite a display of pure love for basketball and their Shockers.

Is that innocence gone forever?

Can basketball-crazy fans be happy with the NIT after starring in the NCAA Tournament spotlight?

Can they be happy with a first-game loss in the NCAA Tournament?

This shouldn’t be the season to worry. The Shockers are nationally ranked and primed to take over a weakened Missouri Valley Conference. A third straight NCAA bid is likely, which would give coach Gregg Marshall another Shocker first. That’s right — WSU has never played in three consecutive NCAAs.

This is the time for Shocker fans to plan on blowing through St. Louis and into the NCAA Tournament with an attitude. This is the time for Shocker fans to dream that their beloved program can sustain the success that fizzled out in the 1960s and 1980s.

“The expectations will be to play in the tournament, the Big Dance,” said Mark Steiner, who visited Koch Arena to tour the renovated locker rooms last month. “They’ve raised the bar.”

Last season’s run to the Final Four changed how fans think of WSU basketball. Any trip to the NIT in the next few years will feel like a letdown. And as the 2011 Shockers would attest, an NCAA-quality team can wind up in the NIT. Fair or not, that sometimes is the fate of MVC teams. That same season, the NCAA selection committee swatted aside regular-season champion Missouri State.

Expectations, always high for Wichita State basketball, will reach a new level this season. More than ever, it’s all about the NCAA’s 68-team bracket — and the consolation bracket is no consolation.

“It would be hard for people to really embrace the NIT now,” said Steve Smith, who attended an open practice last month at Koch Arena. “I think people will be happy with the Sweet 16. I don’t know if they’ll be happy with just making (the NCAA Tournament) now. Marshall has set the bar that high.”

To be sure, that’s a high bar. WSU joined the NCAA Division I ranks in 1945 when it joined the Missouri Valley. Last season, it made its 10th NCAA appearance and won more than one game for the fourth time. It returned to the Final Four after a 48-season drought.

Shocker fans tasted the big time in March and they don’t want to take a step back.

“I certainly don’t expect to be traveling to the Final Four again this year, although that would be great,” said David Glover, after touring the Koch Arena renovations. “I think they can get to the NCAA Tournament and win a couple games. That would be a successful season. I’m not going to be upset if they don’t make it to the Final Four.”

Robert Strickler loved the NIT, loved winning games, loved the trophy and debated the value versus an early loss in the NCAAs with his Shocker friends. He lived through the bad times of Shocker basketball and says it will be tough to disappoint him with any postseason berth.

Then he gets to dreaming. …

“Butler did it two years in a row, why can’t we?” he said.

It won’t be easy to win four (or five) NCAA games to play in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Most fans know that.

“That would be awesome,” said Wilma Hart. “That’s a huge expectation on those young men. To go in with that already on their backs … that’s a huge burden to take with them. I hope people don’t have that expectation and it’s a bonus if we do.”

Optimism — even hooping all the way to Texas optimism — isn’t gonzo crazy. Cleanthony Early, the first MVC player to make the NCAA All-Tournament team since Larry Bird in 1979, is back. Lockdown defender Tekele Cotton is back. So is Ron Baker, the NCAA Tournament darling. Everybody expects point guard Fred VanVleet to step right in as floor leader, just like he did last March.

The Shockers are 9-2 in NCAA and NIT games the past three seasons, so top competition doesn’t fluster this bunch.

“It’s hard to get to the Final Four, but I think this team could be as good, if not better, than that team,” Smith said. “I like what we have coming back. Baker. VanVleet. I like some of the new guys, too.”

The Shockers will play basketball in November and December. They start the MVC schedule in January and grind through February. March, elite programs know, is when expectations are highest.

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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