Wichita State epitomizes what March Madness is all about
SALT LAKE CITY -- It's hard to imagine a newly minted national champion exulting any more in a win than the Wichita Shockers did in the wake of their 76-70 upset over No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the round of 32 Saturday night. With the doors of the Shocker locker room still closed to the outside world, individual screams and shouts leaked out into the hallway of EnergySolutions Arena, eventually giving way to a unified rendition of the Shocker War Chant. When the doors finally opened to the media, the celebrations within reverted back to individual form: sophomore forward Jake White mugged for cameras, while reserve forward Chadrack Lufile bowed his head, wiping tears from his face. Sophomore guard Tekele Cotton sat slumped, a smile pasted on his face.
Paul Brustetter, a Salt Lake Citian who had fallen hard for the team while serving as its bus driver for the weekend, offered exuberant hugs and high-fives.
And junior forward Cleanthony Early, who had 16 points and seven rebounds despite foul trouble, bounced up and down at his locker doing his best Dickie V -- "The Zags are going down, Baby!" he shouted between cackles. "The Shockers are going to shock the nation, Baby!"
Shock it they had: after building a 13-point lead in the first half, then falling behind by seven with 5:31 to go in the second, the Shockers did everything right against the Zags with the game's pressure at its most intense: they made threes -- four in the last 5:09, and 14-of-28 overall, after hitting just two of ten against Pitt on Thursday -- they hit six of seven free throws, and they held the Zags to just 20 percent shooting to snatch the win and earn their first Sweet 16 berth since 2006. For the game the Zags shot just 35.6 percent from the field, a season low, and 34.8 percent from the three.
"When all those shots were falling, I was going, 'Wow... oh, wow...oh, WOW!" said senior guard Malcolm Armstead, who scored just five points, half his average. "I didn't have a good night offensively but my teammates stepped up."
The Shockers got contributions from up and down the roster, including a timely three by White, who was only recently given a "yellow" light by Marshall to take that shot. Freshman guard Ron Baker added 16 points, including four three-pointers, and senior forward Carl Hall, recently shorn of his signature dreads, added 10 points. "When we shoot the ball, as tough as we defend and as hard as we play, we're pretty good," said coach Gregg Marshall.
They are also deep. Wichita State's reserves outscored Gonzaga's 34-7 for the game and accounted for 44.7 percent of the Shockers' points. In that stat lies a story. Last fall the Wichita State athletic department's marketing arm decided to capitalize on the standout hairdos of three Shocker starters by making special black-and-gold t-shirts. The shirts featured the silhouettes of Hall (caption: "Dread the Locks"); Baker ("Can't Tame the Mane") and 6-foot-5 sophomore Evan Wessel ("Can't Stop the Mop"). But not long after the shirts debuted at the Shocker Locker gear shop, what Hall calls "the curse of the hair shirts" hit: Right before a Dec. 13 date at Tennessee, Wessel broke his right pinkie. On Dec. 15 Hall fell down in practice and broke his right thumb. A day later Baker was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot.
"It was as if three of our guys had gone out on an icy road and had a car accident, it all happened so close together," Marshall, who was already dealing with the challenge of replacing the top five scorers from last season, said on Wednesday. "The good news is it wasn't fatal. But all three of them were going to be on the sideline for a while."
As Hall (out seven games), Baker (out 21 games) and Wessel (out for the year with a medical redshirt), sat on the sidelines pondering their weirdly mutual bad luck, their teammates-- including Early, White, and VanVleeet, who had 13 points against Gonzaga -- filled in to extend a 9-0 record to 15-1.
"What was beautiful was how the other guys responded," says Marshall. "Your eighth player becomes a starter; your 11th becomes an eighth player. All these guys, whether it's true or not, believe that they are really, really good. As a staff we were behind closed doors going, 'What are we going to do?' But they're going, 'This is my opportunity, I'm the next man up. Let's go!' Our being here is a testament to these kids and their belief in, we're going to win regardless."
Wichita State, the Missouri Valley Conference runner-up, is, in many ways, the perfect poster school for this tournament. The Shockers have a funky, one-of-a-kind mascot -- a highlighter yellow, pencil-skinny cartoon figure with a wry smile and a wheat hairdo -- a totally engaged band that sings the Shocker War Chant at least as well as its basketball team does, and a seasoned coach who is, at 50, "stoked" to be heading to his first Sweet 16. And instead of one-and-done stars, they have players who have taken all sorts of paths to come together as a team. Armstead was Oregon's starting point guard for a year before he decided to transfer after a coaching change. Marshall didn't have a scholarship immediately available, so Armstead took out loans to pay for his transfer year. Hall, who missed the 2007-08 junior college season with heart arrhythmia, is playing a sixth season after getting an NCAA waiver. Lufile and Nick Wiggins, the older brother of top 2013 national recruit Andrew, both hail from the Toronto area. Ehimen Orukpe, the team's 7-foot senior center, grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. Early passed on several DI offers out of Mt. Zion Academy in North Carolina and attended a DIII junior college near his home in Middletown, NY, so he could be close to his mom in the wake of his older brother's tragic drowning in 2010. He then passed up opportunities with San Diego State, Baylor, Washington State and Georgetown to play for Marshall because "I felt like I could really grow and be an impact player here," he says.
Early is just one of the Shockers who admits to having an abundance of self-confidence. "I think our team's biggest strength, and it might be our biggest weakness, is that we have a lot of confidence in ourselves," says sophomore guard Tekele Cotton. "We feel like we can play with anybody in the country."
This weekend, neither Pitt nor Gonzaga, the number one team in the country, offered any evidence that they can't.