The NCAA Tournament selection committee added a neutral-court game to the Wichita State-Virginia Commonwealth series. They will meet on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament in Portland, Ore.
That is fine with the Shockers, who want to even things at 1-1. VCU won at Koch Arena last season in a BracketBusters game that helped the Rams start their run to the Final Four and relegate the Shockers to the NIT.
They meet again, and one of them will survive as this season’s darling from a non-BCS conference.
“It’s an interesting matchup, just because of the game last year,” WSU senior Garrett Stutz said. “And then the younger guys will play them again next year (in a return game from BracketBusters). You’re talking about 13, 14 months ago they weren’t on our schedule at all. Now they’re on three times in three years.”
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The selection committee rewarded WSU (27-5) for its regular-season Missouri Valley Conference championship with a No. 5 seed. Then it handed the Shockers a red-hot No. 12 seed. VCU (28-6) won the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament to cap a stretch in which it won 17 of 18 games.
The Rams run and press with great enthusiasm, a style of play they brand as Havoc. WSU coach Gregg Marshall compared the Rams to Alabama, a team WSU is famililar with after beating the Tide in the 2011 NIT and losing to them in November in Puerto Rico.
“It’s going to be a lot of athletes,” Marshall said. “They have a style that’s unique. They’re on a streak. We’ll have to start a streak.”
WSU coaches and players gathered to watch Sunday’s selection show with around 1,400 fans at Koch Arena. It did not take long for the Shockers to pop up on the screens as a member of the South Region, the first section of the bracket unveiled. Should WSU defeat VCU, it will play the winner of No. 4 Indiana and No. 13 New Mexico State on Saturday. The winner heads to Atlanta for the Sweet 16.
Kentucky, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, will need to win twice to meet the survivor of the South’s Portland pod.
When WSU’s name came up, the fans cheered, streamers popped and the players exchanged hugs and high fives. For the veterans on the team, it’s been a long road. Seniors such as Stutz and Toure Murry came to WSU four years ago with the goal of making the NCAAs. They came close last season.
“To finally get the chance to watch Selection Sunday and know that you’re getting in, it’s an honor for us,” Murry said.
The Shockers are making their first NCAA appearance since 2006 and their ninth overall. They return to Portland, site of their 1965 Final Four appearance. These games will be played in the Rose Garden Arena, home of the NBA’s Portland TrailBlazers.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Stutz said. “It’s a common goal we all had coming in here as a freshmen, and we hadn’t achieved that yet.”
Marshall is making his eighth NCAA appearance as a coach after making seven at Winthrop from 1999-2007.
“You learn that it’s not a birthright,” he said.
WSU last played on March 3, a semifinal loss in the MVC Tournament to Illinois State. During the layoff, the Shockers focused on improving their skills. They scrimmaged on Saturday, breaking the sessions into 10-minute segments and mixing up the teams for each. On Sunday, the players went through an hour of skills workouts.
Now they can prepare for an opponent, returning to the routine of the season.
“We need to get back to playing the way we were a month ago,” Stutz said. “We corrected some things we started to slip up on. Coaches tried to prepare for styles of basketball we might now see as often through the year. Now we know who’s ahead of us and we know who our opponent is and I think we’re ready for the challenge.”
MVC Tournament champion Creighton is a No. 8 seed and plays No. 9 Alabama in Greensboro, N.C.