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Shockers are magic made for March
This is why we watch.
Because any given March, a team full of transfers and castoffs, from a commuter campus in a city more known as the birthplace of Pizza Hut, can become the hottest thing in sports overnight.
On Saturday night in Los Angeles, Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State Shockers did what they always do. They outhustled and outmuscled the favored Ohio State Buckeyes. They survived elbows to the jaw and twisted ankles. They held on during a fevered late-game rally by the second-seeded Buckeyes and, in a 70-66 victory that might go down as the greatest moment in Wichita’s sports history, became just the second 9-seed to make a Final Four. They did all this in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
And this is why the flawed narrative that college basketball is struggling has no juice: A Cinderella story like this simply could never, ever happen in America’s favorite sport of football.
Set aside the fact that Wichita State does not have a football team. (Its campus football stadium stays empty on Saturday in the fall, a concrete memorial to the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the team and was the demise of the football program.) There’s a reason “Hoosiers” was a basketball movie, not a football movie. Only in basketball can a David like Wichita State sling a stone and knock down a Goliath like Ohio State.
That’s why these Shockers are the best thing about college basketball. This sport has more parity than any other. The gap between the haves and have-nots is continually shrinking, the only positive byproduct of the awful one-and-done rule. It has become America’s most egalitarian of sports. In just a few years, with a few transfers, a few solid recruits, and a whole lot of hard work, an intense young coach like Gregg Marshall can take a team that went 11-20 in his first season and turn it into the biggest March surprise since VCU. In a season in which the blueblood of bluebloods, Kentucky, didn’t even make the Tournament, it’s only appropriate that Wichita State makes the Final Four.
When you walk into Koch Arena, you realize that even though this is one of the most excitable atmospheres in college sports, Wichita is definitely not Lexington, Ky. Yes, the facilities are great, the money’s there, the team flies by private jet, but this is not a place McDonald’s All-Americans call home. While the bluebloods drool over five-star recruits like Andrew Wiggins, Marshall goes after Nick Wiggins, the older brother. While the bigger schools moan about losing their elite players after only one season, Marshall’s key player is big man Carl Hall, who quit playing for a Georgia junior college because of a heart condition, got a job working 60 hours a week in a light-bulb factory, then found his way to Wichita. While other coaches’ most talented players are a year or two out of high school, Marshall’s biggest talent is Cleanthony Early, a junior college transfer from New York.
I spent a few days in Wichita this winter, trying to figure out how a school like this can become a basketball power. My favorite moment was sitting in Marshall’s office when he found out his team had ascended all the way to 14th in the nation in the USA Today Coaches Poll. I’ve never seen a coach so giddy. He sprinted out of his office and yelled at all his assistants: “Fourteen! Fourteen!”
In that office, Marshall had nearly a dozen chopped-down basketball nets hanging from nails, mementoes from conference titles and tournament victories at his old school, Winthrop, and at Wichita State. There was one empty nail, too, a symbol of motivation. The arena was packed with some of the most knowledgeable college basketball fans in the country, because Wichita State carries all the weight of being this city’s most prominent team. When I watched practice, Marshall came over to whisper something to me: that no team in the country works harder than his Shockers.
I would like to add one more thing to that: There’s no team in the country that better shows why March Madness is the best tournament in sports than Gregg Marshall’s Shockers.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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