Wichita State will not take any back roads to national basketball prominence this season. If the Shockers emerge from their non-conference schedule a big winner, everyone will know.
WSU (1-0) gets its chance to register on the high-profile stage starting Monday with a game against Connecticut (2-0) in the Maui Invitational. If the Shockers want to impress NCAA Tournament selection committee members, talkers at ESPN and poll voters, this is their chance. It's not their only chance, but it is a chance nobody wants to waste.
"It's a privilege," WSU senior J.T. Durley said. "We think we're a good basketball team and we want to prove to everybody that we're not just for talk."
A good run in the Lahaina (Hawaii) Civic Center, with ESPN's Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery watching, would prove just that. The field is loaded with great basketball names, although some of the schools may be more about reputation than performance this season. The WSU-UConn winner likely gets Michigan State. The loser likely plays NCAA Division II Chaminade, the host school which last won a tournament game in 2007. Kentucky, Virginia, Oklahoma and Pac-10 favorite Washington are on the other side of the bracket.
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"We want to show Wichita State isn't an easy team to walk over," guard Toure Murry said.
Tournament chairman Dave Odom, former coach at Wake Forest, is telling people the best first-round matchups are Washington-Virginia and WSU-Connecticut.
"Those are two coaches (WSU's Gregg Marshall and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun) who won't give an inch," Odom said.
The Maui field is often the best of all the holiday tournaments. Duke owns four titles, with North Carolina next with three. The list of champions is filled with the sport's biggest names — Kansas, UCLA, Syracuse. It's also been a place where schools from lower-profile conferences can make a statement. The tournament usually leaves room for one team not from a Bowl Championship Series conference, and this season it's WSU. In 2003, Dayton won the tournament. Last season, Gonzaga defeated Colorado, Wisconsin and Cincinnati to win the title.
"Everybody's excited; everybody's talking about it," WSU forward Ben Smith said. "We need to focus on our opponent and respect them, but still go out there and try to play harder than them."
Winning Monday sets WSU up for a potential RPI-and-respect feast. The sun, scenery and surf won't make up for the disappointment if the Shockers return home 1-2 with a win over Chaminade — or worse.
"We'll have three games over there that are all very important, on national television of some sort," Marshall said. "For the coaching staff and players, in particular, winning and losing and how well we do over there plays a big part in our memories we bring back. The first part is all business. After that, we'll be able to relax a little bit and enjoy it."
Until then, the Shockers are all about preparation for UConn and whatever is next.
"I hope that we find out we're mentally and physically tough as nails," Marshall said. "That we're mature enough to handle . . . all the hype. I hope we find out we're pretty good, and can defend and not get pushed around by these immense, athletic teams."