For Wichita State players, Final Four appearance not a shock
LOS ANGELES -- In 25 years as commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, Doug Elgin has watched plenty of his teams pull NCAA tournament upsets over more established powers. He's seen them play nine Sweet 16 games. But prior to Saturday, he'd never watched one play for a spot in the Final Four.
When it finally happened, it almost seemed ... anticlimactic.
From his courtside Staples Center seat, Elgin watched ninth-seeded Wichita State physically dominate its Big Ten opponent Ohio State from the opening tip. He watched the Shockers jump to a 13-point halftime lead, eventually extend it to 20 points in the second half, and, after Ohio State nearly wiped out the entire margin, make the clutch play to put away the Buckeyes for good, 70-66.
"Midway through the first half, I'm thinking, 'This isn't going to be an upset,'" said Elgin. "It's a brand-name upset, but if these teams played seven times, I bet Wichita State would win the series."
It's a partisan observation, but he may well be right. At this point, who's to question a team that's held double-digit leads in all four of its NCAA tournament games, knocked off both the No. 1 (Gonzaga) and No. 2 (Ohio State) seeds in its region and done it with a certifiable mean streak?
Wichita State is a 2013 Final Four team because its cast of junior-college transfers, lightly recruited prospects and former walk-ons believe that's exactly what they should be.
"It feels good, but I feel like, this team, we aren't done yet," forward Carl Hall said. "So it's on to the next game."
It's on to Atlanta, where the Shockers will face either Louisville or Duke, where they'll be given little chance of advancing another round. And that's just how they like it. Wichita State coaches and players certainly celebrated Saturday night, first on the court, where point guard Malcolm Armstead tightly clutched the game ball he'd sought out from a floor usher shortly after the final horn ("This ball isn't going anywhere," he said), and then in the locker room, where they could be heard breaking into song before reporters were allowed in the room.
But it was hardly the raucous scene befitting a team that just earned its school's first Final Four berth since 1965 and given it 30 wins in a season for the first time in history. Freshman point guard Fred VanVleet sat with his hands on the floor and casually answered questions. Hall's stonefaced expression hardly looked different than it did on the court an hour earlier. The loudest exhortations came from the coaches' family members.
"We're not smart enough to know, hey, we've got to win this game or the season's over," Wichita State staff member Devon Smith said in the locker room as a couple of players posed for pictures with the regional trophy nearby. "If they'd lost, they'd probably still be asking, 'When's shoot-around tomorrow?' With this team, they were all so loose."
They've played that way throughout the tournament, whether throttling traditional Big East power Pittsburgh in the Round of 64, raining clutch threes on Gonzaga to reach the Sweet 16 or running away from La Salle in that game's opening minutes. On Saturday, you could see the confidence oozing out of star Cleanthony Early when he skipped back on defense after draining a couple of early threes. Hot outside shooting propelled the Shockers early, as consecutive treys by Tekele Cotton and Demetric Williams gave them a 25-15 lead with 6:29 left in the first half.
But the game would ultimately be decided by the Shockers' trademarks -- defense, rebounding and depth.
The game plan, said several coaches and players, was to prevent Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft from driving on them. "He's the straw that stirs their drink," said one assistant. Whenever Craft would make a move toward the paint, at least a pair of Wichita defenders would quickly close the gap. If a Buckeye did try to drive, they often met the 6-foot-8 Hall, who finished with six blocks.
"They're definitely one of the more physical teams we've played," Craft said. "...They did a phenomenal job. They got a shot blocker down there that blocked quite a few shots in the first half, and that really kind of had us on our heels."
Craft finished the game a miserable 2-of-12 from the field. Meanwhile, Wichita State counterpart Armstead, the Oregon transfer who paid his own tuition while sitting out last season, not only helped neutralize Craft, but also scored a team-high 14 points, including a pair of huge threes.
"I'm a physical person," Armstead said. "When people said Aaron Craft was going to be so physical, I said, 'OK, I like it.'"
The Shockers were willing to take their chances by sagging off top Ohio State scorer Deshaun Thomas, who they viewed as a streak shooter, and it paid off—Thomas missed all six three-point attempts. Wichita State went up 35-22 at the half, at that point holding a 27-17 rebounding edge. They came back out and extended the margin all the way to 20, leading 56-36 with 11:02 left.
But Ohio State gradually fought its way back, outscoring the Shockers 16-4 over the next seven minutes. Despite picking up his fourth foul with 7:38 left, Thomas, who finished with 23 points, came alive offensively, and, just like the past two games, LaQuinton Ross (19 points) provided an offensive spark. As the Buckeyes pressed defensively, the previously smooth-operating Shockers started committing needless turnovers and silly fouls. Ohio Sate finally cut it to single digits, 60-52, on a tip-in by Shannon Scott with 4:02 left, and was back within a single basket, 62-59, with 2:48 left.
But what's truly unique about Wichita State is its depth. Throughout the tourney, the seemingly unlikeliest figures came up with the biggest plays.
On Saturday, one hero was Cotton, the team's sixth-leading scorer. With 2:21 left and the Shockers seemingly on the verge of an epic collapse, the sophomore drained a three to push the margin back to 65-59. Shortly thereafter, he grabbed a huge offensive rebound that set up another unlikely hero, freshman backup point guard VanVleet, who drove between two defenders for a running jumper to make it 67-61 with 1:00 left. When Craft missed a three-pointer on the other end, it was apparent the Shockers would hold on.
"On any given night, it can be one of nine or 10 guys that can step up and make plays for us," associate coach Chris Jans said. "You'd have to ask another coach, but I've got to imagine that's incredibly difficult to scout."
Mind you, this was a game where two of Wichita State's most important players, Hall (head) and Early (ankle), briefly went to the locker room with injuries. It was a microcosm of a season in which the Shockers lost one starter after just eight games and played without sharpshooter Ron Baker for 21 games and Hall for eight. And all that after losing their top five scorers from the year before.
Yet somehow, this is the Wichita State team that earned veteran coach Gregg Marshall his first Final Four berth and is taking the Shockers to a hallowed ground that not even former stars Antone Carr, Xavier McDaniel and Cliff Levingston reached in their early '80s heyday.
And the way they've played, it seems far less improbable now than it did on Selection Sunday.
"We're the only ones that can stop us, and we know that" Early said. "Let them talk. The critics are going to be critics ... we always want to be better than they think we can be."
So far they've been indisputably better than the four teams they've faced. There's no way to say they could have won a seven-game series against Ohio State, but they don't have to. It's the NCAA tournament. It's one-and-done. And the Wichita State players that took turns cutting down that net Saturday night fully believe they're capable of doing it again a week from Monday.