There was a debate a year ago over whether winning the NIT, as Wichita State did last March, was a comparable accomplishment to simply reaching the NCAA Tournament.
WSU players didn’t contribute to the debate, conducted on talk radio and message boards by fans and media. Now that the Shockers possess the perspective of having experienced both tournaments, there is a clear winner.
"Our fans do a great job of supporting us," WSU junior guard Demetric Williams said. "They just wanted to let everybody know that we accomplished something good. But nothing is like the NCAA Tournament."
There was plenty of reason to celebrate WSU’s NIT championship. The Shockers had never won a national tournament, and the road to the title included wins over major-conference opponents Nebraska, Virginia Tech, Washington State and Alabama.
WSU celebrated on the court of famed Madison Square Garden and it was difficult not to get caught up in the moment of a 29-win season, a program record.
This moment, even before the Shockers have played a game, is just better. More prestige and a larger, more interested audience.
"Our first three games in the NIT were at (one of) the teams’ home court," senior Joe Ragland said. "Before we made it to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, it wasn’t comparable to this. This is the NCAA Tournament, this is what everybody wants to perform in. (The NIT) is the JV of this."
"I’m pretty sure he’s just going off of experience," Ragland said. "They’re a team that was in the Final Four last year, and he feels they can make the same run. It’s up to us to stop that."
Obama, like almost everyone else, didn’t pick VCU to go far in 2011. Rams coach Shaka Smart let the Commander in Chief off the hook, though.
"He’s gotten smarter," Smart said.
When WSU made the Top 25, the shoe and apparel company based in Beaverton, Ore., sent new black shoes for the Shockers. On Tuesday, Nike sent a shipment of hyper-bright yellow, with gray accents, Nike Zoom Hyperenforcer hightops to WSU’s hotel. Some of the Shockers broke them out for Wednesday’s practices.
“All they said was they had to wear them for the games,” Shocker freshman Jake White said. “You’ve got to warm up to them a little bit, but people will notice you when you’re playing.”
Senior center Garrett Stutz took a few seconds to describe his thoughts on the look.
“I’m not a real flashy guy,” he said. “They’re comfortable. They’re super-light.”
The Shockers chartered from Wichita on Tuesday. They practiced on Wednesday and did their media duties, a different routine from the regular season. The veterans didn’t seem starstruck by the NBA arena or the numerous media members and their questions.
“It’s an honor, a great privilege to still be playing basketball,” junior Demetric Williams said. “We’re embracing all this atmosphere and taking advantage of our opportunity.”
Senior David Kyles is drawing on last season’s loss to VCU to keep him in the right place mentally amid all the hoopla.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I’m trying to not get caught up in the limelight. I’m trying to maintain my same mindset from last year when we played and how I felt after we lost. That kept us out of the (NCAA) Tournament.”
Wednesday’s practice reminded the Shockers of their purpose.
“We had a good mindset, a good game plan on how VCU plays,” Williams said. “Everybody is enjoying it now, but we all know what our big goal is.”
White has no problem resisting the urge to be a spectator in his first college season.
“Every time you lace up, the only thing you’re focused on is playing basketball,” he said. “You stay focused on the game and not worry about the distractions like the media and the crowd.”
Assistants Chris Jans and Greg Heiar and director of operations Dominic Okon are in the NCAAs for the first time.
“It’s a big deal, and that’s one thing that everyone looks forward to at least a couple of times in their career,” Okon said. “It’s taken us five years to get there, but it’s been a joyride so far. Hopefully we will keep it as long as we can.”
Stutz was named to the All-District 16 team. Ragland was named to the second team.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Missouri State’s Kyle Weems, Evansville’s Colt Ryan and Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael joined Stutz on the first team. Drake’s Ben Simons, Indiana State’s Jake Odum, Creighton’s Antoine Young and Drake’s Rayvonte Rice made the second team.
All-District players are eligible for the NABC All-America team announced Tuesday.
Anderson, who averages 14.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, was named conference Defensive Player of the Year. He wanted to see how the knee feels after moving on it in practice on Wednesday.
“If it’s too sore, then I’m probably not going to play,” he said. “I haven’t really ran since my injury.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino calls Davidson’s style the Princeton offense on steroids. Davidson’s starters all average in double figures and the Wildcats rank 12th nationally in scoring at 78.4 points.
“I’ve not seen anybody we faced this year, maybe with the exception of Long Beach, that runs on every single possession,” he said. “They don’t slow it down one possession unless it’s a sideline, coming out of a timeout. They are as up-tempo as any team we have faced.”
The Shockers defeated Davidson 91-74 on Feb. 18, part of their 4-3 record against the 68-team field.
The Rams still shoot a lot of three-pointers. Last year, 41.1 percent of their shots were threes, 38.9 percent this year. VCU ranks 56th nationally in three-point percent-age, one spot better than last year.
Without marksmen Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez, the Rams have defined them-selves even more with defense. They had 328 steals last year in 40 games, then a school record. This year, they have 361 steals through 34 games. The Shockers have taken notice.
"They play 40 minutes defending the ball the way they do because of the seniors that they lost," Ragland said. "They try to turn you over and get easy points that way."