Return trip in March
When Shocker coach Gregg Marshall looked at his bench a year ago in Portland, Ore., he saw nobody other than himself with NCAA Tournament experience. No players. No assistant coaches. No trainers.
“Most important, the players,” he said. “This year, that won’t be the case.”
The Shockers aren’t NCAA veterans after playing one game in 2012. They do know more about the routine, the glare of the TV lights, the NBA arenas and the caliber of opponent.
“They’re not wide-eyed and just excited to be there,” he said. “As opposed to being there with an intent on winning and advancing and not letting all the outside hoopla and the distractions be the focal point, more so than the opponent.”
Five Shockers played in last season’s 62-59 loss to VCU, although Demetric Williams and Carl Hall are the only ones who played significant minutes.
“It lingers with our group of seniors,” Hall said. “We remember last year going out in the first game.”
The atmosphere on Thursday will be unlike any WSU played in this season. The arena is similar to Creighton’s CenturyLink Center, Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena and the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The spotlight and the stakes are much brighter and higher.
“You try to tell them to not focus on that, not focus on the big stage, not focus on the big crowd,” Williams said. “Remember that feeling we had in St. Louis losing that last game. You lose, and that’s it. Our season is over.”
All of the Shockers are trying to balance savoring the accomplishment with winning a game.
“It’s everything that you dream it to be,” freshman Fred VanVleet said. “You don’t expect all the media and stuff. It’s a big stage and just being here is kind of a thrill. I just put things in perspective. I didn’t experience it first-hand last year, but just thinking of them losing last year, I want to make a difference this year.”
Pitt’s upperclassmen are NCAA veterans after making appearances in 2010 and 2011, both times going 1-1. Last season, the Panthers stumbled to a 22-17 record and won the College Basketball Invitational.
“We missed it last year and that’s made us even more anxious to get out there and play another NCAA game,” Panthers senior Tray Woodall said. “It’s not nerve-wracking. We are just anxious.”
Another tough draw
VCU seemed underrated as a No. 12 seed last March. WSU faces another team that appears to be overqualified in the Panthers.
They watched the NCAA selection show figuring the power of the Big East would deliver a seed two or three spots better than No. 8. Pitt lost eight games, seven to top-50 RPI opponents. It went 4-7 against the top 50 and 5-0 against teams ranked 51-100. Its most impressive showing came in a 73-45 win at second-seeded Georgetown.
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WSU allows opponents to score an average of 60.7 points. Pitt allows 55.4.
Should those statistics hold, possessions will be precious and an eight-point lead might as well be 18.
“We just don’t want to give them easy baskets on layups, dunks, tip-ins, atomic bombs where we turn the ball over and they get a basket where we don’t have a set defense,” Marshall said. “I think they’re probably thinking the same thing, so ball security and quality shots is what you can do on the offensive end to negate that.”
Come on out
WSU’s signal for being tired is a raised fist. Coaches trust the players to go hard until fatigue hits. Players trust the coaches to put them back in after they volunteer to hit the bench.
Both the Shockers and Panthers go deep into their bench. Pitt’s reserves outscored its opponents 802-428.
“It’s always good to know that you can leave it all out on the court and have the same thing come off the bench,” Pitt forward Lamar Patterson said. “You can leave it all on the court because we have 10 players that are all capable of scoring, passing, rebounding.”
Wichita State is making its 10th NCAA appearance and is 8-10. It went 2-1 in 2006 before losing its only game last season. Pitt is making its 24th appearance and 11 in the past 12 seasons. The Panthers played in the Sweet 16 in five of the past 12 seasons.… WSU center Ehimen Orukpe needs one block to move into fifth on WSU’s single-season list. He is tied with Antoine Carr in fifth with 54.… Pitt’s weakness is free throws. The Panthers shoot 66.4 percent and went 11 for 19 in a 62-59 Big East Tournament loss to Syracuse.… Pitt is leaving the Big East for the ACC next season.
— Paul Suellentrop