Chadrack Lufile, as the witnesses remember, stood in the Intrust Bank Arena locker room on Dec. 14, 2013 and told his teammates they could win every game that season.
Every game. Unbeaten. With no fear of the jinx.
Lufile, a former Wichita State center, got that feeling after a 70-61 win over Tennessee put the Shockers at 10-0.
“We were all like ‘Slow down … it’s really hard to do,’ ” Wichita State senior Zach Bush said.
“He was the first one that talked about it,” senior J.R. Simon said. “He mentioned that if we kept playing like that, we could win every game.”
The Shockers did win every game, going 31-0 in the regular season and adding four more in the postseason to reach 35-0 before a 2014 NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky.
On Thursday, Bush and Simon, the two players remaining from that 2014 team, went home after the Shockers defeated Missouri State and watched highlights of No. 1 Gonzaga’s 90-60 win over Santa Clara. Gonzaga is 25-0 and plays at No. 20 Saint Mary’s on Saturday in what might be the last chance for a loss during the regular season.
Bush and Simon are watching and rooting for the Zags, an intersection of two programs increasingly intertwined by their success, conference affiliation and high-profiles in a world dominated by bigger schools. Kentucky’s unbeaten run in 2014-15 irritated some of the Shockers for coming too soon after their accomplishment. Bush and Simon feel a connection to Gonzaga that they can’t to a school with history like Kentucky’s.
“I hope Gonzaga does it,” Bush said. “I like those guys. I like how they do it. Similar program as us.”
Wichita State embraced its celebrity in 2014. Coach Gregg Marshall led the way by taking on interview and photo requests, talking about the streak and spreading the spotlight. He assigned numbers to each game — win No. 18 became the Peyton Manning game, No. 23 for Michael Jordan and he turned No. 29 into a tribute to Wichita’s aviation work force that built the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
“Our guys were unbelievably focused, and instead of trying to stress about it, we tried to have fun with it,” Marshall said.
The Shockers won 13 non-conference games, defeating Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Alabama and Davidson. By March, the schedule looked stronger when Tulsa made the NCAA Tournament, Saint Louis earned a No. 5 seed and defeated North Carolina State, and Tennessee advanced to the Sweet 16.
“We prepared the guys as best we could, but ultimately you never think you're going to be able to run the table,” Marshall said. “There's a lot of pitfalls and places you have to go where they're gunning for you. It makes it very difficult.”
Gonzaga’s build to this spot reminds the Shockers of their run in 2013-14. Both schools faced criticism of their schedule, especially once conference play started.
“You remember being in that situation and people saying ‘Well, you’re not playing anybody, so of course you’re unbeaten,’ ” Bush said. “They’re getting everybody’s best shot, just like we were.”
The Shockers cruised through the Missouri Valley Conference schedule that season with an average margin of victory of 15.6. They won 15 of the 18 MVC games by 10 or more, with a 72-69 overtime win at Missouri State the closest. Gonzaga’s average margin is 27.3 with a 10-point win at BYU the narrowest escape.
“Coming out each night ready to play … it’s really hard, harder than people think,” Simon said. “If you don’t come ready to play, you can get beat by anyone.”
The Zags, as long as they keep winning, face another month of questions about their schedule and how it will prepare them for the NCAA Tournament. Their absence from the Final Four through their long run of success also gives skeptics fuel.
The Shockers, coming off the 2013 Final Four, were in a different position. The spotlight, in many ways, remained fresh in 2014. They didn’t carry the burden of past disappointments, as the Zags do in the eyes of some. WSU, of course, contributed to that burden by upsetting the top-seeded Zags in 2013 during the tournament’s first weekend.
Embrace it and really enjoy and have fun with it,” Bush said. “Make it special. Make it your goal to do it.”