This was a dream season for Wichita State basketball. You couldn’t help but let your mind wander as the wins started stacking up and the losses – well, a loss never materialized.
Until late. Until Sunday against Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament in a classic game that the Shockers couldn’t quite get. They lost by two points.
Hard to imagine any WSU fan being able to hold back tears, at least initially. So much emotion had gone into the season. There was such an investment.
Wichita State had a chance to be the first unbeaten national champion in 38 years. And while some questioned the team’s legitimacy because of a sub-par schedule and a Missouri Valley Conference gone bad, anyone who saw this team play more than a couple of times was convinced of its talent. And even more so, it’s moxie.
Gregg Marshall continues to do an amazing job as the mastermind. He recruits players who not only can play, but also are good people who make their fans proud for reasons beyond their abilities to make a jump shot.
I’ve been around Wichita State basketball for a long time and I don’t recall a team in the history of the program winning over a fan base and a city the way this one did.
It was obvious early how good the Shockers were going to be, even though they had a way of struggling in the first half of some games they shouldn’t have struggled in.
Fred VanVleet, after backing up Malcolm Armstead during his freshman season, became one of the best point guards in the country. His backcourt running mate, Ron Baker, overcame a pesky ankle injury in mid-December to turn in an outstanding season. Junior Tekele Cotton did what he does: defend like a madman while continue to develop an all-around offensive game. Marshall developed an inside trio of Chadrack Lufile, Darius Carter and Kadeem Coleby and they combined to give the Shockers plenty of interior production.
And then there was senior forward Cleanthony Early, probably the Shockers’ most gifted and skilled athlete since … Xavier McDaniel?
If Early doesn’t play significant minutes in the NBA for somebody next season, I’ll be shocked. He was the best player on the floor Sunday during the Shockers’ epic battle against Kentucky, which is saying something considering the Wildcats have a bunch of potential NBA lottery picks on their roster.
Early had a tendency to cruise at times during his Wichita State career. But he stepped on the gas in the biggest moments, including last year’s loss to Louisville in the national semifinals. Early had 31 points against Kentucky and scored in every way imaginable. He was possessed.
I think Marshall did his best coaching job this season. It’s not easy to keep a team focused and level-headed as its gets to 10-0, 15-0, 20-0, 25-0, 30-0 and, finally, 35-0. It’s human nature for pressure to mount as perfection expands. Yet I was unable to detect anxiety or edginess with this team. The players didn’t change the way they played or the way they addressed questions about the unbeaten streak. The team’s maturity level far exceeded the ages of the players.
Marshall, too, did not try to downplay being unbeaten. He reveled in his team’s wins and scoffed at the notion that it would have been good to lose a game late, just to drop the intensity level around his team.
He recognized and appreciated the opportunity the Shockers had to accomplish something historic. Marshall chased every win like it could be his last and was clearly emotional after the loss to Kentucky, wiping away tears as he consoled his young daughter, Maggie.
Wichita State swept through the Missouri Valley, winning the regular-season championship by six games. The Shockers consistently won games by double digits and only once was seriously threatened. That was against Missouri State in Springfield on Jan. 11, when WSU trailed by 19 points in the second half only to rally furiously to tie the game at the end of regulation, then win in overtime.
But even in a weak league, to win nine times on the road is impressive. Wichita State was always getting the best shots from its opponents and those rival fan bases cherished the notion of witnessing the end of the winning streak.
It never happened.
Not until Kentucky, which had to play its best game of the season to win. The Wildcats looked like anything but an 8-seed; instead they looked like a team worthy of its No. 1 ranking in the preseason. And it took that team, not the one that had tripped up 10 times, to beat the Shockers.
Shocker fans are probably just now beginning to sort out their feelings about this season. The habit of winning had surrounded this team and its fan base. Remember, Wichita State won four straight games in the NCAA Tournament before the Louisville loss. So, the Shockers had won 39 of their previous 40 before Kentucky.
Habits are a hard thing to break. Wichita State and those who support the team had forgotten how to lose, really. That’s why the Kentucky feat felt so jarring. Not only did it snap a long winning streak, it dashed the dreams that Shocker fans could not avoid dreaming.
The more Wichita State won, the more validity those dreams gained. What once seemed impossible became possible.
Until it wasn’t. Until the Shockers lost one of the best basketball games they’ve ever been involved with.
It was over, just like that. It’ll take some time to move on.