Shortly after 5 tonight, CBS announcer Greg Gumbel will read “Wichita State” to set off a roar in Koch Arena. The Shockers will officially return to the NCAA Tournament.
“The sound of relief,” Shocker junior Demetric Williams said. “We know right now that we’re in it, but just hearing your name and experiencing something which a lot of teams don’t, will be a good feeling.”
Leonard Kelley played on the first Shocker team to make the NCAA Tournament, in 1964. Little mystery existed in those days. The NCAA plotted the 25-team tournament geographically and the Shockers knew they were in as soon as they won a Missouri Valley Conference playoff against Drake. They knew they would play in Wichita in a regional semifinal against the winner of a quarterfinal game between independents Creighton and Okahoma City.
“They didn’t make a big show of it then,” Kelley said.
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In 1981, NCAA officials told WSU it could count on an at-large berth in mid-February. The 1976 Shockers clinched the MVC title at Drake and knew their first-round opponent, Michigan in Denton, Texas, when the game ended.
That changed in 1982 when CBS first broadcast the selection show. Now players grow up wanting to see their school unveiled as part of the 68-team bracket. If they are fortunate, CBS cameras are on hand to record the jubilation.
“It’s our first time, so it will be very exciting just to hear our name,” senior Toure Murry said. “It’s going to be a great day in front of the nation. We worked so hard to get there.”
WSU coach Gregg Marshall is planning for his eighth NCAA appearance, seven at Winthrop. The thrill of the announcement is secondary to the signal it sends: Time to get to work on a specific opponent. His team will assume the role of favorite for the first time when seedings are announced. Winthrop, a member of the Big South, was a No. 16 seed three times, peaking at No. 11 when it knocked off Notre Dame in the first round of the 2007 NCAAs.
“It’s more of a relief that we finally know who we’re playing,” he said. “I would hate to be on the bubble. With this group, I don’t think there’s any doubt were in and we’re a single-digit seed. It’s just a matter of getting our opponent so we can get back to work in preparation.”
No. 16 WSU (27-5) will make its first NCAA appearance since 2006. Both teams apprenticed in the NIT, to great disappointment, before breaking through into the NCAA Tournament. Both teams wrestled control of the MVC race away from the pack in February. Both teams lost in the semifinals of the MVC Tournament and relied on a solid non-conference performance to impress the NCAA selection committee. The 2006 Shockers ranked No. 26 in the power ratings (RPI) on selection day, with a strength of schedule ranked No. 58. As of Saturday, the current Shockers ranked No. 12 with a schedule strength ranked No. 57. The MVC’s upswing also helped. Its RPI ranked No. 6 in 2006 and produced three at-large teams, two of which advanced to the Sweet 16. This season, it ranks No. 8 with WSU and No. 19 Creighton assured of NCAA bids.
In both seasons, winning games in the NIT served as a prelude. The 2005 Shockers, with three senior starters, defeated Houston and Western Kentucky at home before losing at Vanderbilt. Coach Mark Turgeon used that tournament to lean more heavily on freshmen Sean Ogirri, P.J. Couisnard and Matt Braeuer, all of whom played prominent roles in 2006. In 2011, the Shockers won the NIT. Those five games set the stage for this season, both by giving the Shockers three extra weeks of practice and by showing them how to play well night after night against good competition.
“Guys that returned had that mindset on what it took to be successful,” Williams said. “We just tried to build on that, and take it in to the offseason, and keep that going.”
The only mystery for WSU today is seed and site. The Shockers appear to be holding steady in range of a No. 4-No. 6 seed. ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi slotted them a No. 4 seed , playing No. 13 South Dakota State in Portland, Ore. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Glockner projects WSU as a No. 4 seed, in Albuquerque, against Virginia Commonwealth. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com lists the Shockers as a No. 6 seed, in Nashville, Tenn., playing No. 11 Texas.