Top-seeded Wichita State headed to St. Louis — with Kansas company

08/06/2014 8:32 AM

08/06/2014 10:23 AM

Some people reacted with anger and sympathy on behalf of Wichita State as CBS revealed the Midwest Region bracket. The top-seeded Shockers appeared to receive a tough break from the selection committee, which placed some of college basketball’s biggest names in between them and a return to the Final Four.

The unbeaten Shockers reacted with excitement. Anybody who thinks this team will shrink from playing Kentucky, Kansas State, Louisville or Duke doesn’t understand this team. They want to play the big names. The biggest reaction during Sunday’s selection show came when “Kentucky” popped up as a possible opponent.

If the Shockers win their way to Arlington, Texas, for the national semifinals on April 5, they will earn it through a field that appears monumentally difficult.

“The best challenge out there is those big-name schools that you think you can’t beat,” WSU forward Cleanthony Early said. “And I feel like we can beat them, if we continue to play hard and do what we do.”

Before the Shockers can think about big names, they must fulfill the duty of the No. 1 seed and dispatch a No. 16. It’s usually easy, but they witnessed No. 16 Southern trail No. 1 Gonzaga by one point with 2:28 remaining last season in Salt Lake City. Gonzaga won 64-58, a performance which hinted at its loss to the Shockers two days later.

The Shockers (34-0) will play either Cal Poly (13-19) or Texas Southern (19-14) on Friday at Scottrade Center. Those teams meet Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. The Shockers would face the Kansas State-Kentucky winner in the round of 32 on Sunday.

No. 1 seeds are 116-0 against the No. 16 seed.

The Scottrade Center, site of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, will be a madhouse starting Thursday with the public practices at noon. Kentucky and Kansas (in the South Region) own two of the largest fan bases in college basketball. Shocker fans started buying tickets for St. Louis at least a month ago. Kansas State adds a fourth team, with fans used to traveling, within driving distance.

While Wichita is 442 miles from St. Louis, Lexington is 334 and Manhattan is 368.

The challenge for WSU is to ignore the circus and focus on playing, first against an opponent they won’t know until Wednesday night. A year ago, the Shockers slipped relatively unnoticed into Salt Lake City — unable to fill a chartered flight with fans — as a No. 9 seed. This season, all eyes are on the nation’s lone unbeaten, some cheering and some wishing for their early demise. Before the Shockers can worry about Kentucky’s height or Kansas State’s Marcus Foster or a rematch with Louisville, it needs to win a game.

“Our bracket looks very stacked,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Any time you’re going to play in this tournament, you really can’t think too far down the road. There will be upsets. People are going to talk about ‘You’re going to play this team or this team.’ You just need to take care of the business that is right in front of you, and that’s preparing for Texas Southern or Cal Poly.”

The Shockers excelled at taking each opponent seriously this season.

“We’ve got business to take care of and we’ve got to prepare properly,” Early said.

Grabbing one of four seeds atop a bracket adds another landmark to this historic season.

Wichita State is the Valley’s second No. 1 seed, joining 1979 Indiana State. It is WSU’s best seed in the tournament, topping a No. 5 in 2012. The Shockers are making a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, a first for the program.

“My reaction was, very thankful,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “You get chill bumps watching your team’s name pop up on the bracket. This year, as a one seed, it feels very special and we’ll hope to take advantage of it.”

The Shockers join a list of 45 schools to earn top seeds since the NCAA first ranked the field in 1979. North Carolina (14), Duke (12), Kentucky (11) and Kansas (10) lead the list. Since 2004, WSU, Gonzaga (2013), Memphis (2006, 2008) and Saint Joseph’s (2004) are the only schools outside the SEC, ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big 10 and Pacific-10 conferences to earn a No. 1 seed.

Preparations started immediately, thanks to the use of Internet-based video systems. The video portion of the scouting reports were done within an hour or so of the selection show. Assistant coach Steve Forbes will handle the scouting duties for Texas Southern. Greg Heiar will prepare for Cal Poly. Associate head coach Chris Jans will scout Kentucky and either Forbes or Heiar will switch to Kansas State after WSU’s first opponent is determined.

WSU will travel to St. Louis on Wednesday. Public and private practices and media sessions are scheduled for Thursday.

“Both of these teams will have our full respect,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “We’ll know our opponent pretty well by tip-off.”

Reaction to the Mighty Midwest came quickly.

According to the Associated Press, four of the teams in the Midwest are among the top eight in the nation —No. 2 WSU, No. 5 Louisville, No. 7 Duke and No. 8 Michigan.

Three 2013 Final Four teams — WSU, second-seeded Michigan and fourth-seeded Louisville, the defending NCAA champion, are in the Midwest. So is Saint Louis, ranked No. 10 less than a month ago. Seventh-seeded Texas finished in a tie for third in the Big 12 and owns wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and Kansas.

WSU, Duke and Michigan are ranked in the top 11 of the RPI, according to warrennolan.com. Louisville, which has won five straight games by 10 or more points, is a favorite of Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics. He ranks them No. 2 nationally with its offensive and defensive efficiency both in the top 10. WSU is the only other team ranked in the top 10 of both.

The committee also hit WSU hard with its map skills.

Should WSU and Louisville advance to the Sweet 16, they meet in Indianapolis in a regional semifinal, 114 miles from Louisville and 676 from Wichita, which hardly seems like geographic protection for the region’s top seed.

“No one in that committee room had the common sense to look at the Midwest and say, this is ridiculous?” wrote Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated on Twitter.

Eric Prisbell of USA Today Tweeted: “My worst fear: Louisville a 4 with WSU a 1. Totally ridiculous. No way Louisville is a 4 seed.”

The Shockers, after two months of talk about their schedule and their worthiness as a NCAA title contender, are ready for the main event.

“Once you get to the NCAA Tournament, it seems like a whole season in itself,” Baker said. “We can put everything behind us and focus.”

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