Shockers still have role of outsider among big names in Midwest Regional

The Wichita Eagle

This story was supposed to address Wichita State’s status as a No. 1 seed, the insider, part of the power elite and favorite to make brackets conform to its will.

Then the NCAA Tournament selection committee made the Shockers outsiders again.

In a powerful Midwest Regional, the Shockers will face prominent teams led by famous coaches who didn’t recruit them. WSU coach Gregg Marshall will prepare for rosters full of players who he couldn’t recruit and teams who won’t play him in the regular season. WSU fans will share hotels and bars with fans who barely regard the Missouri Valley Conference as an NCAA Division I conference.

Proving all that wrong is what drives Wichita State. Even before the bracket was announced, Marshall provided his view on how the Shockers compare to college basketball’s purebred programs.

“This NCAA Tournament, it’s not the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show,” he said. “You don’t have to have papers to win it. We love our dogs at my house. None of them have their papers. I don’t have my papers. These (players) most of them don’t have papers.”

Not everybody doubts the Shockers. Plenty love them for their unbeaten record and style of play. But there are enough big names in the bracket with them — Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, Michigan — to restore that underdog feeling.

“With all the talk outside of Wichita and outside of our program, about the schedule and not playing anybody, people want us to apologize for how we’re playing,” sophomore guard Fred VanVleet said. “Our mind-set is we do belong here and now is the time to prove it.”

Wichita State (34-0) will get that chance starting Friday in its opening game against a No. 16 seed. Up next is either eighth-seeded Kentucky or ninth-seeded Kansas State. Michigan, a Final Four team last season, is the second seed. Duke is the No. 3 seed and defending NCAA champion Louisville is No. 4.

Those school combine for 16 NCAA titles. Twelfth-seeded North Carolina State adds two more and Kansas State finished second in 1951.

In a season filled with history at every turn, the Shockers are aiming at 40-0 and a season that any program would envy. Winning five more games gives WSU the most wins in NCAA history. Winning six more makes the Shockers the first unbeaten NCAA champion since Indiana went 32-0 in 1976.

“These guys have responded all year very well to the next challenge, the next game, the next opportunity,” Marshall said. “They’re so steadfast in their belief that they want to be special. They want to be really, really great and achieve things that other Shocker teams haven’t been able to achieve.”

WSU has already done that. No team won more regular-season games (31) or entered the NCAA Tournament with so many victories. Even with all that on the resume, seeing the Midwest Regional fill up with big names put the Shockers in their usual place as the team trying to enter the exclusive clubhouse. If the Shockers advance to the Final Four, and win a title, they will leave royalty in their path.

“Somebody’s trying to give us our first loss,” VanVleet said. “The one seed and our record will definitely put another target on our back. But we’re not being the hunted. We’re hunters.”

The No. 1 seed, the Sports Illustrated cover, the No. 2 ranking in the polls — the Shockers don’t want that attention to rob them of the chip-on-the-shoulder style that served them so well last season.

“We don’t have to change nothing up,” senior Chadrack Lufile said. “Just play angry and play smart. Go after it like it’s our last game.”

Last March, they surprised Pittsburgh, a team that expected a better seed and played like it, and stunned top-seeded Gonzaga to start the run to the Final Four. This weekend, other teams will try to make the tournament’s big splash by upsetting Wichita State.

Some won’t view it as an upset. Some don’t think WSU is a deserving No. 1 seed. One of the keys to WSU’s games will be determining if coaches such as John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski can convince their McDonald’s All-Americans to take the Shockers as seriously as they deserve.

“When somebody tries to disrespect the work you do, you can take it personally, but you can’t let it affect how you play the game or what you do everyday,” VanVleet said. “Just keep grinding and they’ll either change their mind or they won’t.”

WSU has been changing minds for several seasons now, beating up on higher-profile programs on their way to an NIT title and last season’s Final Four. They are 14-4 against the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12 since the 2010-11 season.

With four seniors, this season’s team is experienced and physically mature. With VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, it possess the guards deemed critical to win in tournament play. Its defense and rebounding are givens and its offense is peaking after an uneven January. The Shockers rarely turn the ball over, make free throws and are capable of excellent three-point shooting.

“We know if we give your A-game, every game, every night out, we can play with anybody,” junior forward Darius Carter said. “I don’t really listen much to what people have to say about us. We don’t have to talk about that.”

Seth Davis and Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated pick WSU to return to the Final Four. Gary Parrish and Wally Szczerbiak of CBS Sports pick the Shockers to win it all.

“I love the fact that every time they’ve been pushed, they answered the bell,” said Szczerbiak, who will cover the tournament as a CBS Sports Network analyst. “I have complete faith in (Marshall). He’s a tremendous motivator, coach and leader. That’s what you need in an NCAA Tournament.”

Szczerbiak isn’t as scared of the big names in the region as some. Perhaps that’s because he can relate to the Shockers as a star at Miami (Ohio), a Mid-American Conference team that reached the Sweet 16 in 1999. Kentucky, in his mind, isn’t as full of NBA-ready prospects as is believed and its outside shooting is a weakness.

“Wichita State has guys that have been there,” he said. “A lot of people overhype (Kentucky). You can run and jump as high as fast as you want. The goal of the game is to put the basketball in the basket. Talent isn’t just running and jumping. This isn’t track.”

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