It happened as Wichita State was pounding Creighton on Feb. 11 before a sellout crowd inside the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. As one shot after another was falling, as one electrifying move after another exposed the Bluejays as overmatched and outmanned, as one Creighton fan after another filed out with time remaining, it happened.
The Shockers were noticed.
The team that was getting no run nationally suddenly became the apple of every ESPN basketball commentator’s eyes. The Shockers exploded on that Saturday afternoon nearly three weeks ago and they’ve been dropping bombshells since, having zoomed all the way to No. 15 in the rankings and becoming the team the experts like for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
What do they see?
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They see what we all see, an experienced team that has reached another level starting with the Creighton game. A confident and determined coach, Gregg Marshall, who has a way of maximizing his team’s talent, the way the great coaches can. A team that can beat you in so many ways, with so many combinations of players. The Shockers can play big, small or somewhere in between with equal effectiveness. And it’s a team that stresses perimeter defense first and foremost and has the parts to make it work.
But most of all, the Shockers have “it.” “It” is in the eyes of the beholder, but there isn’t a set of eyes that can dispute the special nature of this 2011-12 Shocker basketball team.
Wichita State is 26-4. Only the 27-4 team in 1953-54, led by Cleo Littleton, and the 25-3 team in 1982-83, led by Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel, have had better records.
The Shockers won the regular-season Missouri Valley Conference championship by two games over Creighton. WSU hasn’t been seriously tested since losing a triple-overtime game at Drake on Jan. 28.
Can we take a moment to commend Drake? The Bulldogs are the only team the Shockers haven’t defeated on the road this season in 11 tries. Their road record the past two seasons is 20-3, which is at once remarkable and ridiculous. Who goes 20-3 on the road in college basketball?
Wichita State’s warrior mentality starts with Marshall, who first caught then-Wichita State athletic director Jim Schaus’ attention when the Shockers played in the same 2006 NCAA first- and second-round site as Winthrop, where Marshall previously coached.
It was Schaus, whose impact on the basketball program cannot be overemphasized, who hired Mark Turgeon in 2000; six years later he had the Shockers in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Marshall, who was Schaus’ man to replace Turgeon after the 2006-07 season, could beat that by a year if the Shockers perform as well in the NCAAs as many believe they will.
First, though, there is the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The Shockers open Friday at noon against Indiana State or Southern Illinois and will try to win a championship in St. Louis for the first time since the tournament moved here in 1991. WSU is 0 for 20 years in St. Louis, but armed with a group of players who are determined to end the frustration and disappointment that has always met the Shockers here.
But whatever happens this weekend, WSU is in good shape to make only its second NCAA Tournament since 1988. That’s not enough for a school that puts as many resources into its basketball program as Wichita State, but has been unable to sustain long periods of success.
Marshall, who just turned 49, has a Midas touch, sure to produce more NCAA Tournaments. With such an experienced team, he has said that there are times when he really doesn’t have to do much except stay out of the way.
The Shockers have benefitted from the extra games in the NIT at the end of last season and from a tour of Brazil during the summer of 2011 and the two weeks of preparation that preceded that working vacation.
Senior guard Toure Murry has played in 136 games as a Shocker and is approaching 4,000 minutes. All of the games and all of the practices show in the Shockers’ precision. This isn’t the greatest collection of basketball players ever assembled, but it’s one of the most well-oiled, humming along like a well-maintained classic car.
That’s why there’s no telling what will happen during the next five weeks. WSU is capable of realizing its wildest dreams, but it has to avoid taking anything for granted. Including Friday’s quarterfinal game against the a low seed.
Wichita State reached its only Final Four in 1965. The Shockers advanced to the Elite Eight in 1981 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2006. Those have been the defining moments for a program that has endured more than its share of hardships.
Marshall, though, has WSU at a historical high spot. His unwillingness to accept anything less than his players’ best effort has made the Shockers one of the most dangerous teams in the country. Wichita State has won 25, 29 and 26 games the past three seasons, but the NCAA Tournament has remained just out of its reach.
This one, though, has left no doubt.
It’s a team eager, not scared. Confident, not boastful. Resilient, not flighty.
In point guard Joe Ragland and center Garrett Stutz, the Shockers have two of the most improved players in the country.
In Murry, they have a glue guy who does all the little things and a fair number of the big ones.
They have all the pieces, everything a team needs for a long March run.
For the first time in a long, long time, the reality is that Wichita State can hold its own against any team in the country. And that includes Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and, yes, Kansas.
No dream is too outlandish, no possibility too far-fetched.
It might all end in disappointment, with a loss no one could have expected. March is a dangerous month for college basketball teams and an exhilarating one for fans.
The ride for the Shockers begins Friday in St. Louis. In case you’re wondering, the Final Four will be played in New Orleans on March 31 and April 2. If you’re a WSU basketball fan, you might want to mark those dates. Just in case.