An imperfect T-shirt couldn’t ruin a perfect ending for Wichita State
ST. LOUIS — The logo on the front of the T-shirt said Wichita State.
The bracket on the back said Indiana State.
Cleanthony Early didn’t care.
"It’s pretty funny, you know?" the Shockers forward said as the legions of gold danced and tweeted and drank up Sunday’s 83-69 win over Indiana State in the 2014 Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament.
Fred VanVleet didn’t care.
"It (doesn’t) matter," the Shockers point guard said after dropping 22 points and five assists on the Sycamores. "We won. So we’ve got the T-shirts on, (and) they don’t get to wear them today."
Chris Jans didn’t care.
"Oops," the Shockers’ top assistant said. "I thought, ‘Somebody’s going to be in trouble.’"
Eric Sexton didn’t care.
"It’s funny. Like, ‘OK, oh well,’" the Shockers’ athletics director said, rolling his eyes. "But guess what? We’re cutting down the nets."
Nick Wiggins didn’t care.
"We definitely laughed about it," the Shockers’ wing guard said. "They’ve been jinxing us all year. We just look at it as, like, another jinx."
The front of the T-shirt declared that Wichita State was the 2014 Arch Madness champion. The bracket on the back decreed that Indiana State had come out on top.
It’s always something, isn’t it?
There it was, the Shox’s first MVC tournament title since 1987 — and the first ever in downtown St. Louis, home to the event since 1991, and the first in three tries under coach Gregg Marshall — and the shirts were a complete cock-up.
"But, oh well," forward Darius Carter said with a shrug. "We won. What can they say now?"
How about this:
Move over, Larry Bird.
Make some room, Larry Johnson. You, too, Greg Anthony.
Because Sunday’s victory pushes Wichita further into the stratosphere, critics be damned. The Shockers are just the second team in Division I history to open a season with 34 straight wins and the first to reach 34-0 since UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels in 1990-91.
That’s also a new Valley bar, eclipsing the Bird-led Sycamores of 1978-79, the MVC’s gold standard, the bunch that rolled to a 33-0 start before falling to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in the national title game.
Now Wichita gets a week off before Selection Sunday. A week to heal, to rest, to decompress, to add a new wing on the trophy case. A week of being examined, cross-examined, dichotomized, dissected, praised, beaten up and beaten down.
A week of being told how unworthy they are of being a No. 1 seed in Bracketville, a No. 1 seed that now seems inevitable.
"At the end of the day, the only thing we can do is prepare ourselves for the next game," Early said with a sigh. "People are going to bag (us). People are going to support us. That’s the way life is."
And to the haters? Any parting shots? Rebuttals? Especially those wearing Jayhawk blue, the acolytes of the Church of the Phog who refuse to acknowledge your achievement, let alone your existence?
"Wolves do not fret," Marshall said, as only Marshall could, "over the opinions of sheep."
Yeah, well, baaaaaaaaaa, humbug.
"Honestly?" VanVleet said. "We’re not going to say (anything) to them.
"You can debate what you want to debate. Facts are facts. Truth is truth. We’re not into debating how good or great we are or how bad somebody else is. That’s for barbershop talk and coffee table arguments. We’re not into that stuff, man. If they feel that way, that’s on them."
"Nobody that’s arguing that is on the (NCAA tourney) selection committee," VanVleet continued. "The selection committee will do all the arguing for everybody. So we don’t worry about that stuff. We don’t care what seed we get — we’ll be ready to play."
Although, really, there isn’t much debate, at least when you stack Wichita’s resume up against recent mid-major No. 1 seeds such as Saint Joseph’s in 2004 and Gonzaga in 2013. The ’04 Hawks were 5-1 versus the RPI Top 50 going into the Big Dance; the ’13 Zags were 6-2. These Shockers are 3-0.
The ’04 Hawks’ non-conference strength of schedule — games you set up, games you arrange, games you can control — ranked 36th in the country. The ’13 Zags’ SOS ranked 33rd. These Shockers are 30th.
"Hey, we’re going to shock the world, man," Wiggins said. "We’ve been saying that and we’ve been proving it all year long. So you keep throwing doubts at us, stuff like that, we’re not folding for (any) of that."
Your hate only makes them stronger.
There were years the Shockers — and their fans — absolutely hated this town, hated the memories and the almosts and the heartbreaks and the strange calls and the sight of Creighton fans having all the fun. This was the third time in the past five MVC tourneys to feature the Shockers in the title game; so far, Marshall had been oh-fer-two.
"I think it’s just a level of angst — it’s different from the perspective of (that), it’s really about we’ve had it ‘right there,’ numerous times," Sexton said before the game. "And we have built our program as a bottle to catch lightning. We’re not trying to catch lightning in a bottle."
They caught it Sunday, but not without a scrap first. Unlike Wichita’s first two opponents over the weekend, the Sycamores (23-10, 12-6 MVC) refused to fade. Indiana State point guard Jake Odum, a walking version of the board game "Operation!," went to the locker room about a minute into the second half, clutching his fingers. When he left, the Shockers were up 44-29. Odum returned a few minutes later, apparently none the worse, and Indiana State went on a 14-3 run that slashed the deficit to 47-43.
As the small blue pockets in the crowd grew louder and more assured, the Shockers’ backcourt took over, the way the Shockers’ backcourt often does. A three from the top of the arc by VanVleet. Another in the corner by Cotton. With 12:33 to go, it was a 10-point game again, just like that.
The cushion had been whittled back down to five when Odum, the senior from Terre Haute, picked up his fourth foul at the 10:08 mark of the second half. The Shox went on a 7-0 run. Then 10-0. Then 13-0.
In the final 8:05 of the contest, VanVleet accounted for 13 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers that pushed the lead to 68-50.
As the wolves ran away (again), the sheep back in the 785 area code grumbled and scoffed.
"It speaks to what you’re doing, man," VanVleet said. "You’ve got to be some level (of) ‘up’ for somebody to tear you down. Nobody tears down anybody at the bottom."
Nobody at the bottom tears down nets. So Marshall swung the twine at Scottrade, happily, smiling at the sea of Shockers around him, the lightning finally in hand, crackling, golden to the touch.
"I told my players: Short of the Final Four last year, I think this is going to be one of the biggest celebrations back in Wichita that we’ve had in a long time," the coach said. "We’ve won regular-season (titles). We’ve been to Sweet 16s. We’ve been to the Final Four. Short of that Final Four, I think this is going to be really appreciated and honored.
"So we got the monkey off our back, so to speak."
And speaking of backs, in regard to the shirts, the story was this: Two sets of celebratory gear were printed, obviously, but the wrong bracket was placed with the wrong logo. If Indiana State had won, the bracket on the back would’ve shown the Shockers winning the championship. An MVC official said the mistake was missed not only by the company that printed the T-shirts, but by a proofreader from the league office as well.
Like the man said: Oops.
Carter didn’t care.
"They’ve got the correct logo on the front," the Shockers’ forward laughed. "So I could probably scribble that out on the back with like a permanent marker or something, and we’ll be all right."
After all, nobody’s perfect.
Well, almost nobody.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.