College Sports

Bob Lutz: Two more St. Louis wins is barometer for WSU season

WSU coach Gregg Marshall has led the Shockers to 34-0, but the nation rightly or wrongly waits for them to pass their first two NCAA tests.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall has led the Shockers to 34-0, but the nation rightly or wrongly waits for them to pass their first two NCAA tests. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State hasn’t lost a game this season, but there are sure a lot of people waiting anxiously for it to happen.

Instead of playing angry, these Shockers have incited anger and resentment from the naysayers who say 34-0 is as much a product of a weak schedule and a lackluster Missouri Valley Conference as it is a strong team.

And there’s only one way Wichita State is going to be able to shut these people up — by getting to at least the Sweet 16. To stifle all of the squawking would probably require a deeper run, but the Shockers have to make it to at least the Sweet 16.

To make that happen, the Shockers, the top seed in a loaded Midwest Regional, need to win two games this weekend in St. Louis. The first one shouldn’t be a problem. A 16-seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed.

Then things get interesting.

Wichita State would play either Kentucky or Kansas State on Sunday with a trip to Indianapolis and the Sweet 16 on the line. And every eye in the vast world of college basketball will be on that game, a make-or-break moment for the Shockers.

Is it fair that one game can carry such significance for a team that has passed every test for more than four months? Of course it’s not. It’s blatantly unfair.

But that’s life.

Wichita State is good enough to win a national championship. The Shockers have what it takes to go 40-0 and cut down the nets inside the house that Jerry Jones built. It would be a monumental moment in sports history and it could be just 19 days away. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head about the possibility.

But there’s a flip side to this potential fairly tale.

The Shockers could also be finished after Sunday, a mere three days from now. Kentucky or Kansas State will provide the biggest challenge to Wichita State since a road game at Saint Louis on Dec. 1. Kentucky and Kansas State, whichever one the Shockers go up against, are better than any of the nine teams WSU spent January, February and early March beating up on in the Missouri Valley Conference. Significantly better.

For a while now, NCAA Tournament bracketologists have had the Shockers as a 1-seed, causing WSU basketball fans to keep an eye on the teams being billed as 8- and 9-seeds. Oklahoma State, Baylor, George Washington, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Kansas State are all teams that showed up along the way to potentially threaten Wichita State.

Now the threat is imminent. The threat is real. And there will be more pressure on the Shockers to win Sunday than there has been on a Wichita State team since . . . the NCAA Tournament game against Iowa at Koch Arena in 1981? The 1964 Midwest Regional championship game against Kansas State? The 1981 Battle of New Orleans against Kansas?

The dynamics for this Shocker team are different from all the rest. This team is unbeaten, ranked No. 2 in the country, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. And because of where it comes from, still somewhat of an unknown on the national stage despite last season’s run to the Final Four in Atlanta.

That run came out of nowhere. WSU was a 9-seed in the West Regional, sent packing to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The Shockers, despite a win over top-ranked Gonzaga to reach the Sweet 16, were like a shiny new toy that a kid plays with for about 30 minutes and then sticks into a corner of the closet.

Except that the Shockers weren’t content to be cast off to some kid’s closet. They’re back and better than ever. There is no doubt that the 2013-14 Wichita State basketball team is better than last year’s club, which lost nine games and was 12-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference.

But being better and going as far or farther are two different matters. The NCAA Tournament comes with no guarantees. One of the biggest reasons for the popularity of March Madness is all of the upsets that occur. Your bracket will probably look like a bloodbath after Sunday’s game. So will mine.

I noticed none of the ESPN analysts “experts” who cover college basketball for ESPN are picking Wichita State to reach the Final Four. Most are going with Louisville out of the Midwest.

Obviously, the doubt that surrounds the Shockers has legs. But there is a way for WSU to knock the legs right out from under all of that skepticism.

It starts with the likely game Sunday against Kansas State or Kentucky. It would be one of the most important games in Shocker history for reasons too many to mention. But mostly to shut up Doug Gottlieb.

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