Wichita State likes to play football schools in March, so it can play more basketball and less football.
"In our league, it's just so physical," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "It's grabbing, like rugby football. Here, there's a little more flow to the game."
The Shockers (28-8) are flowing along toward the championship of the National Invitation Tournament with their offense taking center stage. WSU plays Alabama (25-11) tonight at Madison Square Garden, trying to win its first national tournament.
The Shockers marched to New York by knocking out football powers Nebraska and Virginia Tech (and gridiron-deprived College of Charleston). Tuesday, they embarrassed Washington State 75-44. Tonight, another big-name school with a football-fueled budget and brand is in the way.
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The Shockers are long past worrying about conference affiliation, especially after a 27-point win over a Big 12 team, a win at an ACC school and the 31-point semifinal rout of the Pac-10 representative.
No wonder Marshall reacts badly to the term "mid-major." His team is making labels and expectations look irrelevant.
"In this tournament, we played the best teams we have all year," WSU guard Joe Ragland said. "Once we beat Virginia Tech, we felt like we can compete with anybody in the country."
Alabama coach Anthony Grant knows more than most coaches about busting brackets. He coached Virginia Commonwealth for three seasons before coming to Alabama in 2009. In the 2007 NCAA Tournament, VCU upset Duke.
Wichita State comes from that same pool of schools that is dangerous to overlook.
"They have great depth, a lot of guys from an offensive standpoint that can carry the load," Grant said. "Defensively, they are one of the best teams in the country."
WSU's offense stands out in the NIT. Missouri Valley Conference teams, with familiarity as their guide, enjoyed some success slowing the Shockers during the February grind. In the NIT, the Shockers average 78 points, making 49.4 percent of their shots and 38.2 percent of their three-pointers. All those numbers are improved over the season average.
"We're getting better at trusting each other," junior David Kyles said. "We don't really care who's scoring. It could be one of the freshmen off the bench, and we don't care as long as we're winning."
Kyles doesn't think the Shockers played selfishly in February. He does think sometimes the Shockers took bad shots or tried to do too much on their own. They returned to trusting the offense and letting it work for them in the NIT.
The proof is in the assists totals — WSU averages 18.8 in the NIT, almost four more than in MVC play.
"Right now, we are playing loose," Kyles said.
Great three-point shooting carried the Shockers in their first two NIT wins. They were bound to cool off, and they did against Washington State.
WSU survived making 3 of 16 threes when its big men dominated. Garrett Stutz scored 24 points. Gabe Blair added 10. The Shockers outscored the Cougars 48-18 in the paint.
"We're making the extra pass and the ball is really moving well," Marshall said. "We got the ball inside. Garrett was able to get good position and we were able to find him."