ST. LOUIS A national sports reporter asked Cal Poly coach Joe Callero, after his team had just been walloped by Wichita State in the Midwest Regionals 1-16 matchup Friday night, how the Shockers would stack up against the other good teams the Mustangs have played this season.
Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Pittsburgh.
The reporter, it seemed, was fishing with the wrong bait. Its a question that has been asked and answered of every coach who has tried, and failed, to beat Wichita State. And Callero, whose team finishes with 20 losses, wasnt about to be the first to diss the Shockers for no good reason.
When are these reporters going to learn?
Do you think, after spending 40 minutes with Wichita, they look the part of the power-conference teams?
The answer from Callero was quick. I think he started to answer before the questioner was finished.
Every bit of it, he said. Every bit of it. The thing about Wichita State is what we want to emulate most in our program. They very, very rarely take any plays off. Their defensive attention and focus and offensive attention and focus is excellent as good as there is in college basketball. They have very, very good players, but they are dialed in. I think that is what separates them.
For more than four months, through 35 games, opposing coaches and players have been singing a similar tune about Wichita State.
The Cal Poly game was a dress rehearsal, complete with new Nike light-gray uniforms with similar piping and lettering to the black uniforms the Shockers broke out in the national semifinal loss to Louisville in last years Final Four.
The Mustangs were no threat, despite a passionate pregame talk from Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, one of Cal Polys best-known alums.
The biggest accomplishment for Wichita State was not getting anybody hurt. WSU coach Gregg Marshall, curious how his team would play after 11 days off following their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship, didnt have to push. Guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker played 28 and 27 minutes, but they werent stressful minutes.
Senior Cleanthony Early, determined to have a big-time NCAA Tournament in his last Shocker hurrah, had 19 first-half points despite getting into foul trouble and finished with 23.
I thought it was important to play well because having been off (11) days you anticipate there being a little rust, Marshall said. But these guys are so focused and our practices have been so sharp and so good that Ive really cut them down. Ive taken Coach (Bob) Knights advice and gone another step. Were practicing about an hour at the max now because they are playing so hard and playing so well. But its good to play well now and have an opportunity to come back Sunday to hopefully play even better.
Ah, Sunday. The Shocker skeptics have been pointing to that day for a long time now, because it will be the first time Wichita State has played a high-quality team in a while.
Wichita State has risen to No. 2 in the rankings and to being a No. 1 seed based on what people see with their own eyes. The Shockers look like a team that can play with anybody. They look like a team capable of winning a national championship. They look like a team that wont be intimidated or feel out of its league against the very best college basketball has to offer.
They proved that last season.
As Cal Polys Callero was speaking with high praise about the Shockers, the two Mustangs players seated with him at the podium nodded their heads to every accolade, as if to emphasize the legitimacy of what Callero was saying.
Wichita State is a very good team, he said. We played Arizona very early in the year and I think Wichita State really matches up with them. I see why theyre 35-0. They are very physical and they hit the outside shots. I think they are going to make a good run in this tournament.
It starts with a nondescript win over a 16-seed that had to bring in a former baseball player for some fire and brimstone.
The Shockers next opponent can bring back some of the most legendary figures in the history of college basketball for motivation.
Things get interesting now. It starts to get dicey. The nation has been waiting a long time for this. So have the Shockers. Theyre ready.