College Basketball Road Trip: Wichita State is the real deal
Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, left, and Wichita State guard Tekele Cotton battle for a loose ball in the first half of a quarterfinal Missouri Valley Conference NCAA college basketball game Friday in St. Louis.
I admit I was skeptical. The idea of a mid-major team being a legitimate threat to win a national championship seemed preposterous to me, and all season long I refused to accept it as even a small possibility.
Yes, Wichita State might be undefeated and yes, the Shockers are coming off an impressive run to the Final Four. However, I was not going to acknowledge that the Shockers were worthy of the status of a real "title contender" because of double-digit victories over mediocre to poor Missouri Valley Conference foes. Wichita State was a pretender and there was no amount of arguing from the college basketball intelligentsia that was going to change my mind.
Well at least that is how I felt until Friday.
After watching Wichita State dismantle Evansville 80-58 in person, I have been washed in the blood of Shocker nation and am now officially a believer. In person, this Shockers team doesn’t look like a scrappy group of underdogs that with the right matchups can pull off upset victories on the road to the Final Four. No, this team is the giant that will have to be upset.
Wichita State is loaded. Four players who would start on nearly any team in America and a coach eager to prove to a nation of disbelievers that his program’s Final Four run was not a fluke make this team dangerous and determined. Wichita State is not a nice underdog story for you to get behind. The Shockers are a legitimate power that will go into the tournament as one of the five best teams in America.
Up until this point, my dismissal of the Shockers had more to do with their opposition than the team itself. With only one true win of note (over St. Louis) and a Missouri Valley Conference that isn’t even as strong as normal, it is easy to go with the dismissive "well they haven’t played anyone" explanation. But as I saw on Friday, that is too simplistic. When you actually watch Wichita State play, you see a team with few, if any, real weaknesses.
They can score with multiple weapons, whether via the dynamic Cleanthony Early in the paint, Fred VanVleet from deep or a deadly mid-range game from Ron Baker. They share the ball as well as any team in the country, finding the open man and rarely taking a bad shot. On defense, they stop penetration and force teams to beat them from deep (an advantage Evansville’s D.J. Ballentine did exploit with 31 points). If you get to the rim, you can expect a host of shot blockers, including center Kadeem Colby, who had six blocks to help contribute to the Shockers’ MVC Tournament record 11 for the game.
It is a group with no obvious holes, a fact that makes slotting them against the best teams in America much more palatable. When I asked Baker how he felt the Shockers stacked up against the top programs in college basketball, he replied "We have shown we can be right there with them. It is an honor to be mentioned with them, but we have shown we can play basketball and that is what matters."
This team surely can "play basketball." Talking about the Shockers’ conference is easy and obvious and will play a part in all discussions about them for the rest of March. History is working against Wichita State, as despite all the March Madness "Cinderella" hype, the championship is still a trophy for the major powers. Since the NCAA Tournament became the 64-team showcase that it is now, only once, with the 1990 powerhouse UNLV team, has it been won by a team that is not currently in one of the seven power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac 10, AAC and Big East). Mid-major teams are great stories and occasionally make a special run to the Final Four, but when the rubber hits the road and it is time to crown a champion, the cream rises to the top.
But the difference this year is that Wichita State is that cream. All four of the 2013 Final Four teams are contenders this season (Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse), but only the Shockers return their primary core from last season’s special group. They are deep, playing up to nine guys, all of whom can compete at the highest level. Their schedule has been slightly subpar, but they have done something the other powers haven’t done: not lose. In a world in which other title contenders have lost to the likes of Arizona State, Boston College, Clemson and Illinois, the Shockers have seen no hiccups and very few close calls. They have taken care of business efficiently and successfully.
The statistical numbers have been on Wichita State’s side from Day One. They rank fifth overall in the Kenpom.com efficiency ratings and are one of only four teams in America to be in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But if you don’t believe the numbers, and I didn’t, watch them in person and you will see them pass the eye test as well. At no point this season have I seen a team play better together on both ends of the floor than this Shockers team. They aren’t the most talented team in America, but they aren’t slouches either and on personnel alone, there are probably only six to eight rosters with more individual talent than the group in Wichita. With that talent and a cohesiveness unmatched in college basketball, how can you doubt them?
After the game, I asked Coach Gregg Marshall if it was important to him that his team get a one-seed going into the NCAA Tournament. He said that in terms of actually advancing through the bracket, it would matter little, as the path changes depending on who wins and who is in your draw. But in terms of perception, Marshall said it would have an impact.
"Honestly, I would like to see us get a No. 1 seed maybe just to upset our detractors a little bit," he said. "I do think we deserve it considering how well this group has performed."
Until today, I was one of those detractors. I looked at the name on the front of the jersey and thought, there is no way a team from Wichita can cut down the nets in Texas. But after watching them in St. Louis, I am convinced that my opinion, and that of college basketball fans in general, would be changed if the front of that jersey said North Carolina or Kentucky instead of Wichita State. If that happened, our prejudice would go away and we would see this team for what it really is: a stacked, experienced group prime to make a run at a historic national championship.