In the weeks and months leading up to the start of practices in October, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest teams, players and stories for the 2014-15 college basketball season. Each team has one burning question we’ll take a look at.
Having a sustained run as a mid-major is hard to do. Success often leads to expectations, and sometimes those expectations are higher than they’re possible to reach.
When VCU made their run to the Final Four in 2011, Shaka Smart’s Rams immediately had the eyes of the nation upon them. While Smart has maintained his success at VCU, his team has yet to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since then.
Gonzaga is probably the easiest mid-major to pinpoint as the measuring stick. With 16-straight NCAA appearances, the Bulldogs are what some would consider a dynasty. Though they’ve never won a national title during that stretch, Gonzaga is proof that with the right type of recruiting, coaching and a little bit of luck, a mid-major can, and will, be dominant for years to come.
For the Wichita State Shockers, it’s more about continuing to prove their naysayers wrong rather than building a dynasty. Building a dynasty takes time. Wichita State is relatively new to the national spotlight. The Shockers have reached the NCAA Tournament the past three years, to varying degrees of success. Their appearance in 2012 saw them outed by Smart and VCU in the second round. Then came their run in 2013, the one that put Wichita State on the map.
Entering the 2013 tournament as a 9-seed, few expected Wichita State to make it past Pittsburgh, a tough, defensive minded team from the hallowed Big East. Instead of rolling over for the favored Panthers, the Shockers put on an offensive display, routing Pittsburgh 73-55.
Their next test: the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who went most of the season with two losses and finished with a 32-3 overall record. Gonzaga was the biggest question mark of the 2013 tournament. As a 1-seed, the Bulldogs had many doubting whether or not they deserved their seeding in the tournament, citing a lack of competition in the West Coast Conference. They weren’t able to silence their doubters, squeaking out a six-point victory over 16-seed Southern, even trailing for much of the game.
Wichita State knew what Gonzaga was capable of despite those doubting them, so they weren’t going to take them lightly. In a tough, back-and-forth contest, the Shockers pulled off a six-point victory of their own, knocking off the Bulldogs in dramatic fashion. Gregg Marshall’s squad would advance to the Sweet 16 in only his second tournament appearance as the Shockers’ head coach. They would go on to face another mid-major darling in the Sweet 16, La Salle.
The Shockers came away with a 14-point victory over LaSalle, bringing them one game closer to the every elusive Final Four. Ohio State was slated to be their next opponent and few had faith in Wichita State pulling off another shocker. But that’s just what they did, knocking off the Buckeyes 70-66, advancing to the Final Four and shocking the world.
Eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals would advance past the Shockers, but not without a fight. A rather quick jump ball call on a tie-up in the final minute gave the Cardinals the ball and the game. In a losing effort, everybody was talking about Wichita State. From that point on, the pressure was on.
Trying to come up with a way to capitalize on their Final Four appearance, Marshall and the Shockers did everything they could to get high-profile opponents for the 2013-14 season, but to no avail. Teams were scared of Wichita State and didn’t want an unnecessary loss on their record. Despite that, the Shockers cruised through the regular season schedule, winning the Missouri Valley regular season and tournament championships along the way.
Then, much like the very Gonzaga squad they knocked off the year before, people started to question whether or not the Shockers deserved a 1-seed, even with their undefeated record. Instead of punishing Wichita State for their non-conference schedule, the tournament selection committee put them into what was referred to as “The Region of Death.” In their bracket sat potential meetings with Louisville, Duke, Michigan and Saint Louis, with a possible third round game against Kentucky being their first major test of the season.
As fate would have it, Kentucky had just started to get their act together on the court, playing much better basketball than their 8-seed would’ve indicated. Instead of complaining, Marshall led his squad into battle, taking care of business in their first game with the Wildcats waiting for them in the third round.
In what’s described as the best game of the year, the Shockers and Wildcats went to war with each team getting some body shots in every step of the way. It all came down to one final three-point attempt for Wichita’s point guard and team leader Fred VanVleet. VanVleet’s three narrowly missed as time expired, ending their perfect season in the most dramatic way possible, the knockout blow. Kentucky would go on to play in the national championship game, proving that they were the real deal in March.
Now, Marshall and the Shockers are about to enter a new chapter of their program’s history, one that’s sure to be interesting, if not a little chaotic. Cleanthony Early, the team’s locker room leader and leading scorer last season, is cutting his teeth in the NBA. Lucky for the Shockers, both VanVleet and Ron Baker, who made his stardom during that 2013 Final Four run, decided to skip the NBA this time around, opting to return for their junior years.
With Baker and VanVleet back, Wichita State has one of, if not the best starting backcourts in the country. Both have immense experience, having been on the Final Four and the undefeated teams the last two years. Each passing game sees both players get better and better. Baker, the sharpshooter, has elevated his game to new heights, becoming a complete player along the way. VanVleet, reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, may have the tallest order to fill. A backup on the Final Four team to Malcolm Armstead, VanVleet stepped into the starting point guard role last year and never let it slip away from him. Each is a preseason All-American candidate, but their ultimate goal is to keep winning.
Wichita State is once again trying to find quality non-conference opponents for their schedule and, once again, coming up a little shorthanded. As of now, their biggest non-conference games are against Utah and against Memphis in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They will also take part in the Diamond Head Classic, whose headline teams include Wichita State, Colorado and Nebraska. The Shockers are still trying to finalize their complete schedule.
Their recent success has sent teams away from scheduling games with them. A Duke, Villanova, Texas or a even a Minnesota aren’t going to offer to play the Shockers. A loss would only hurt their record and a win would be something they should have against them. At least, that’s how the higher-profile teams see it.
Recent success is hard to overlook with years of mediocre performances. Those same high-profile schools afraid to schedule the Shockers will go out of their way to schedule non-Division I games so they can add some win totals. A loss does them no good with the selection committee.
This all stems from fear and disrespect; fear of the unknown (what can Wichita State bring to the table this year?) and disrespect from the success they’ve obtained (yeah, okay, but who have they played?). It’s hard to make it as a mid-major. Even with a track record of wins and success, Big Five conference schools don’t want to play you when you’ve been winning. It happened with Gonzaga until recently, it happened with Creighton during the Doug McDermott era, it’s still happening with VCU and now Wichita State is the latest victim.
In the end, it all comes down to winning, something Wichita State has done plenty of in the past two or three years. Their success speaks volumes to how recruiting, coaching and a little luck can do for you. In the end, sometimes that scares people off. The media and the fans want to see the Shockers take on the best the country has to offer during the regular season, not wanting to wait until tournament time. By then it’s too late, the questions have already started.
So what if they’re undefeated, who have they beaten? That’s the paradox that currently keeps Wichita inside of a box with only so much to move. The Shockers have had magic on their side the last two years, but can they keep it going?
Better yet, will it be enough?