College Sports

Bob Lutz: There is reason to smile on I-70 West

The Wichita Eagle

ST. LOUIS – Wichita State took whatever spell or curse or evil spirit that has been lurking in this city for 23 years behind a woodshed this weekend and beat the devil out of it.

Just as the Shockers have bludgeoned the nine other teams in the Missouri Valley Conference all year long. They finished it Sunday afternoon with an 83-69 win over Indiana State in the tournament championship game at Scottrade Center, the scene of so much Wichita State disappointment over the years.

The Sycamores fought hard. They got to within five points with 11:34 to play. They caused some hyperventilation amongst the 7,500 Shocker fans who made the trip from here and there to witness what they hoped would be history.

Ultimately, though, Wichita State prevailed going away, the first time they’ve won this tournament since it was moved to St. Louis in 1991.

Cross this one off your list, Shocker fans. Find another mountain to climb.

“I think it’s something that, since I’ve been the coach, the amount of time, energy, money that Shocker Nation has spent making the trek,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “I think 4,500 (Friday) became 6,000 (Saturday) and today probably in excess of 7,000 people because they wanted to see this.

“It’s so important to them and it’s important to me and my players to be able to give this to them for the first time in 27 years. I think this is going to be one of the biggest celebrations back in Wichita that we’ve had in a long time. We’ve won regular-season championships. We’ve been to Sweet 16s. We’ve been to the Final Four. Short of that Final Four, I think this is going to be really appreciated and honored.”

Now the world expands for Wichita State. The NCAA Tournament beckons, probably as a No. 1 seed. This 34-0 season has been, as Marshall called it, a “magic carpet ride,” but there is sure to be more turbulence in the coming weeks as the Shockers reach heights normally reserved for the sports’ blue bloods.

WSU will learn its fate next Sunday, then begin the chase to what they hope will be a 40-0 national championship season. As simply crazy as that sounds, it’s plausible.

Skeptics are still out there, of course. Wichita State will forever have skeptics who point to the undeniable history of big-conference teams winning big-tournament get-togethers. They can’t get their small minds around the notion that a team from a relatively small conference can compete for a national title.

The Shockers rolled through 21 Valley games — regular season and tournament — and won them by an average of 15.8 points. Indiana State is definitely the best challenger the conference has to offer, but the senior-laden Sycamores and their standout point guard, Jake Odum, didn’t have enough.

“We fought with them,” Odum said. “We were right there hand-in-hand with them for 30 minutes of the game. We just couldn’t finish out. They were the better team today. They were the better team this season.”

Wichita State put three players on the all-tournament team. Junior guard Tekele Cotton, the George to this club’s Paul (Fred VanVleet), John (Cleanthony Early) and Ringo (Ron Baker), was definitely something in St. Louis. As always, he was a defensive stopper and tough rebounder. Now he’s adding big-time scorer to his resume, having scored 20 points Sunday.

The Shockers are eager to see new faces and battle different teams. The Valley is a shambles in their wake.

“I think the exciting point for us is to finally get to play against someone other than Evansville or Indiana State or someone in our conference,” Baker said. “It’s been a long conference season and it’s nice to get some new competition on our plate. We’ll see how we handle them.”

We can’t wait.

Drama has been almost non-existent during this incredible Shocker season. WSU will likely have one more cupcake to devour in the 1 vs. 16 game in the NCAA Tournament before things get serious.

If you can make a case for Florida, Arizona, Duke, Villanova or Kansas to win it all, you can certainly make one for Wichita State. The Shockers won’t go into the tournament as the favorite. That honor will be bestowed, most likely, on Florida, although is the SEC really all that?

WSU’s only real tussle has been with those who question the team’s legitimacy. Marshall was asked about it again after Sunday’s win over Indiana State.

At first, he refused to engage.

Then, as he was answering a question from another reporter, Marshall doubled back to the question about his team’s legitimacy.

“I might have an answer for you,” Marshall said. “I’m going to go with (Shocker center) Chadrack Lufile’s tweet from about two weeks ago. ‘Wolves do not fret over the opinions of sheep.’ ”

Marshall’s comment drew laughter. This has been a hysterical season.

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