KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wichita State took over the Sprint Center on Monday night. As the clock was ticking off the final seconds, in fact, the place might have been empty had it not been for Shocker fans, who were living it up over a 90-72 win over DePaul in the CBE Classic.
The Shockers, ranked No. 12 in all the land, are living the good life.
Meanwhile, the slow ride to nowhere continued for DePaul, a once-proud basketball school where Ray Meyer coached from 1942-84 before his son, Joey, took over for 14 more.
But gloom struck the Blue Demons late in Joey Meyer’s tenure and DePaul has been doomed ever since. This is a team that has won only seven Big East games in the past five years while losing 83. Yet when the new Big East was formed after the 2012-13 season, the Blue Demons were invited.
Because DePaul is a private, Catholic school that fits the new conference’s profile and because it’s located in Chicago, home to a lot of people who have a lot of televisions.
Never mind that none of them are ever tuned to a DePaul game. Watching the Blue Demons for the past 20 years or so has been a punishment for a fan base with some long-forgotten pride. DePaul simply doesn’t register these days and there’s no sign that Oliver Purnell, in his fourth season after a successful run at Clemson, is the coach to turn this around.
Some wondered whether Wichita State could find the “on” switch after the lights went out on the Shockers during the Mike Cohen-Scott Thompson eras of 1989 through 1996. But as bad as those years were, they were nothing compared to what DePaul is going through now.
That’s because WSU’s fan base would never allow the Shockers to become a college basketball low life, at least not for long. Not even three seasons of Cohen followed by four of Thompson could kill the spirit of Shocker fans. And finally, after four years of lukewarm success under Randy Smithson, they were rewarded when Mark Turgeon took over and in his sixth season took WSU to the Sweet 16.
Gregg Marshall two-upped Turgeon, taking the Shockers to a Final Four in his sixth season. And this ride shows no signs of slowing down.
Wichita State, which will meet BYU in Tuesday night’s championship game, is 6-0 with a different team than we’ve seen in Marshall’s years with the Shockers.
This one isn’t built around depth, it’s built on cornerstones Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early and Tekele Cotton. They combined for 59 points against DePaul, an atrocious defensive team that often made scoring easy.
Marshall will continue to work on depth because it’s in his coaching DNA. He likes to go to the bench. He’s hyper that way.
But he won’t let that get in the way of good judgment and the Shockers have four difference-makers, four players who could push to make All-Missouri Valley Conference team.
That’s not a slap at the Valley. These four are that good. And only Early is a senior. VanVleet and Baker are just sophomores, a fact of which coaches around the Valley are acutely aware.
The Shockers looked like they were going to struggle through another lackluster first half. But DePaul’s lack of defense was just the cure for Wichita State’s first-half woes.
WSU broke free from a 22-21 game thanks to a 16-0 run in just more than four minutes. From then, the Blue Demons were a ball of yarn and the Shockers were a cat.
Great for Wichita State, which played in front of a few thousand Shocker fans that included former great Xavier McDaniel, who on Sunday was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
But I can’t get over just how bad DePaul has gotten. Or the fact that despite the Blue Demons’ struggles, they’re in the new, glamorous, posh Big East.
Of the two teams on the floor Monday night, only one belongs in the new Big East. But, of course, Wichita State isn’t private or Catholic. They don’t fit the profile, which has more to do with media market than the quality of the basketball team.
I could go on and on about that, but Marshall and his players aren’t hung up on glitz and glamour. They’re about winning and improving and following up last season’s Final Four with another season that could produce some March madness.
The Shockers are in a great place, the kind of place DePaul used to be when the Blue Demons were making 18 NCAA Tournament appearances.
But that’s long ago and far away for DePaul, which hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2006 and hasn’t won more than three conference games in a season since 2007-08.
It was the haves against the have-nots Monday night. At least the have-nots have more televisions.