College Sports

Bob Lutz: Tough road for Shockers, sure, so time to lace ’em up

Wichita State University basketball players  clap after it was announced that WSU will be a number one seed in the tournament. (March 16, 2014)
Wichita State University basketball players clap after it was announced that WSU will be a number one seed in the tournament. (March 16, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

We’re nearing the end of a gripping movie and the good guys have been winning every battle, taking every prisoner, coming out on top in every situation.

But we’ve anticipated something bad lurking around the next corner for weeks now. Something more sinister than the good guys have had to deal with, and something that could be their downfall.

The 8 and 9 seeds.

Wichita State, which found out Sunday its road to the Final Four is treacherous, gets just one more free pass — the winner of Wednesday night’s Cal Poly-Texas Southern first-round NCAA Tournament game in Dayton, Ohio. Then the tournament takes a turn for the worse.

Doug Gottlieb himself couldn’t have set up a more difficult, terrifying scenario in which the Shockers must weave their way back to another Final Four. Martin Scorsese, either.

The Midwest Regional is rated R, for “Really?”

Wichita State gets to 34-0 and this bracket is its reward?

The Shockers, who did draw a No. 1 seed although it’s kind of hard to tell, could be faced with Kentucky, Louisville and Duke to get to the Final Four. Or maybe Kansas State instead of Kentucky and Michigan instead of Duke. Or, who knows? Maybe Manhattan, Arizona State and Iowa will come out the other side. You never know.

But the odds say it’ll be Kentucky, Louisville and Duke or Michigan. From that list reside three of the past four national champions.

The tournament selection committee seems to have looked at Wichita State’s perfect 34-0 season so far and said, “Prove it.”

And so that’s what the Shockers will set out to do. There can be no whining or lamenting or any “woe is me” rhetoric. It might look like the committee had a bone to pick with Wichita State, but now is not the time to pick up that bone and throw it back at the people who sent you into basketball wilderness with a box of matches and a slingshot. Now is the time to do what the Shockers specialize in doing — use a perceived slight as motivational rocket fuel.

Kentucky, which could be the Shockers’ opponent in the third round, has been up and down and all around this season. But the Wildcats might be the most athletic team in the 68-team field. And Lexington, by the way, is 100 miles closer to St. Louis than is Wichita.

Let’s say the Shockers get by the Kentucky, which isn’t far-fetched. That could set up a Sweet 16 game with Louisville in Indianapolis.

Everybody’s going out of their way to feel bad for the Cardinals, who walk and talk like at least a No. 2 seed but were given a No. 4. Well, Louisville gets to go to Orlando this weekend, and any weekend in Orlando is a good one. And the Cardinals-Shockers game, if it happens, would take place in Indianapolis, barely 90 miles from downtown Louisville and inside a dome that will allow thousands upon thousands of Cardinals fans easy access. Seems to me Louisville did OK.

In such a scenario, Wichita State Gregg Marshall would undoubtedly play the revenge chip. It was Louisville that overcame a 12-point deficit in the second half of the national semifinals last season to beat the Shockers. Who doesn’t love some vindication?

We’re getting way ahead of ourselves, of course, which is exactly what the NCAA Tournament bracket is designed to make us do. We play out all of these scenarios in our heads, then half of them never materialize because of upsets and surprises and theatrics. The things that allowed Wichita State to make a Final Four run all the way from a 9-seed last season are exactly the kinds of things that happen every year in the NCAA Tournament.

The Shockers’ unbeaten streak has been treated with equal parts awe and skepticism by the national pundits. Some believe wholeheartedly in what Wichita State is selling, while others expect unbeaten to become undone at the first real challenge.

WSU has a chance to stuff a big sock into the mouths of the skeptics. In fact, the Shockers could write the kind of history no school has ever penned by winning six more games and finishing as 40-0 national champions.

It’s not going to be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. There’s just one more easy touch left. Thanks for playing, either Cal Poly or Texas Southern.

After that win, Wichita State will be 35-0 and within five games of legend. The selection committee has put terribly, nasty obstacles in the Shockers’ way. It will be gruesome to watch and fraught with danger. But in movies, the good guys almost always come through. My suggestion — pretend it’s a movie.

Meanwhile, I don’t know what to make of the Kansas Jayhawks, who have confused me all season. So much talent, so little chemistry. And a questionable point guard.

KU does get a relatively good draw. Its third-round game could be against a good New Mexico team, but the Jayhawks beat the Lobos by 17 at the Sprint Center earlier this season. Syracuse, the 3-seed in the South, has been slipping. UCLA doesn’t play much defense. Looks to me like a KU-Florida rematch in the Elite Eight.

Then again, what have the Jayhawks done this season to earn that much trust? The answer: nothing. They’re a solid candidate for an early exit. But also a solid candidate to reach Arlington and the Final Four. When it comes to Kansas, who knows?

Kansas State is a Midwest 9-seed and will square off against Kentucky, an 8. So why does it feel like K-State is such a big underdog? Probably because of the way the Cats struggle to score points. It’s hard to have much faith in a team that seems so often not to have much faith in itself.

K-State is capable of doing big things. But we haven’t seen much of that when the Wildcats aren’t at home in Bramlage Coliseum. Outside of the friendly confines, K-State has been susceptible. The seeds tell us this is a skin-tight game. I’m not sure the seeds are telling the truth.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle