Bob Lutz

Squint and dream: Shockers capable of running the diamond-studded table

Wichita State’s players did what players do. They talked about the game at hand.

I’m not a player, though. I can afford to look ahead.

And I’ve looked at the yellow (and black) brick road that the Shockers started down when they beat Dayton in the first round Friday night.

Kentucky is next on Sunday. Then it could be UCLA in the South Regional semifinals, followed by North Carolina. Kansas could potentially be the Shockers’ foe in the national semifinals. And are you ready for a Wichita State-Duke matchup in the national championship game on April 3?

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How do you not get into that?

You spout the sports cliche, that’s how.

“We treat every game with the same amount of respect, one team at a time,” Shocker forward Rashard Kelly said.

“We can’t afford to look ahead,” guard Landry Shamet said. “Your full attention has to be on the team you’re currently pitted against. That’s what we try to do.”

You guys are in your late teens, early 20s. Your imaginations are vivid. And you really don’t think about the “what could be” aspect of the NCAA Tournament, especially as it stacks up for the Shockers?

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Kentucky (124), UCLA (105), North Carolina (118), Kansas (101) and Duke (108) are the five teams that have won more than 100 NCAA Tournament games. Five, that’s it. Louisville, with 76, is next.

Together, the first five have won 546 tournament games and lost 214. They have combined to win 32 of 78 national championships (41 percent). They have produced countless All-Americans and NBA stars and been home to some of the game’s most legendary coaches and players.

And you haven’t peeked ahead? At all?

Give me a break.

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At least Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall admitted that he has noticed the teams who are potentially in the Shockers’ way.

“We knew our hands were full with Dayton, who we poured the majority of our energy into that game,” said Marshall, whose Shockers won 64-58. “But we also saw Kentucky, we saw UCLA, I think North Carolina. And Louisville or Kansas as a potential path to the Final Four. So, you know, we’re going to play it one game at a time.”

Well, I’m not. I’m playing it five games ahead. To the first Monday in April at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Don’t scoff because when it comes to Wichita State basketball, fewer and fewer people are. You should have heard the reverence Kentucky coach John Calipari directed at the Shockers during his Saturday news conference. Cal knows because he saw the Shockers up close in 2014, when the Wildcats needed everything they had to beat WSU 78-76in St. Louis.

In Marshall’s 10 seasons, the Shockers have lost five NCAA Tournament games by three, four, two, 11 and eight points. To VCU, Louisville, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Miami.

In that span, WSU has beaten Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana, Kansas, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Dayton, among others.

Wichita State can stand toe-to-toe now with anyone. The Shockers might get lost in their two-month excursion through the backwoods of the Missouri Valley Conference, but when they re-appear in March they get in their licks.

Would anyone of right mind predict a run like the one described above? Of course not. It would be the most historic and improbable route to a national championship. “Hoosiers” or “Rudy” would be supplanted as the most improbable and inspirational sports movies.

But what are sports if you can’t dream a little?

Sure, Kentucky could be a loud wake-up call Sunday. But what if the Wildcats aren’t? Wichita State is capable of beating Kentucky.

The Shockers could conceivably beat UCLA, North Carolina, Kansas and Duke, too. We’re not talking about Kent State or Iona here. We’re not being silly. We’re talking about a school still mislabeled by some as a mid-major, but one that spends a lot of money on basketball, pays its coach a salary that makes even the big boys gasp, and has established a track record.

The oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 4 1/2-point favorite and they may be right. Let’s face it, a college basketball world in which Kentucky beats Wichita State is the world that makes most sense.

But the Shockers don’t see it that way. And Calipari understands what a threat Wichita State is, too.

Listen, I’m not going to tell this wild, unimaginable scenario falls into place. There are so many variables and obstacles.

But it’s fun to dream about. Can we have a little fun?