by Ryan Peloquin
In case you didn’t know, the No. 9 seed Wichita State Shockers won the West region of the Division I men’s basketball tournament.
Despite losing to Louisville on Saturday night, they reminded us why March Madness is unlike any sporting event in existence.
The Wichita State Shockers hail from Wichita, Kansas, and are led by head coach Gregg Marshall. Those familiar with college basketball are well aware of Coach Marshall’s success in his six years at Wichita.
Marshall has earned three NCAA tournament berths in his time as head coach. While 2013 was his most impressive run by a long shot, he led the Shockers to a No. 11 seed in 2007 (in which they upset Notre Dame before falling to Oregon) and a No. 5 seed just last year (when they fell to a strong Virginia Commonwealth team).
Marshall has been named the Missouri Valley Conference’s Coach of the Year for the past two years, and additionally he has the 2011 NIT Championship in the Wichita State trophy case.
Unlike some National Championship contenders (Florida reached the Elite Eight without beating better than a No. 11 seed), Wichita State had to beat three top 25 opponents just to get to Atlanta.
After blowing out No. 20 Pittsburgh in the opening round, the Shockers faced the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs. While the ’Zags were criticized for their soft regular season schedule, slowing down bigs like Kelly Olynk and Elias Harris was no easy task.
Despite Olynk’s 26 points, the Shockers did not shy away from the physical play of Gonzaga. Shocker guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet dropped 16 and 13, respectively, while forward Cleanthony Early added 16 points and 7 rebounds off the bench. The Shockers downed the ’Zags 76-70.
Wichita’s first and only time as a favorite this March came in the Sweet Sixteen versus No. 13 seed La Salle. While the Explorers boasted quick and skillful guards, the Shocker backcourt was quicker and even more skilled.
Senior guard Malcolm Armstead paced Wichita with 18 points, six boards and four dimes. Wichita committed mid-major on mid-major crime in the paint, out rebounding La Salle by 21 en route to a 72-58 victory.
Back to the role of the underdog. The Shockers were dealt the Big Ten Tournament Champs, the No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes, in the Elite 8.
With a staunch defense led by Aaron Craft and perhaps the best scorer in the country, Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State presented the Shockers’ biggest test of the year.
However, the Shockers forced Thomas, who scored 23 points on 20 shots, to become a volume scorer and managed to keep the rest of the Buckeyes’ studs at bay.
Yet again, Cleanthony Early led the way, scoring 12 points and gathering seven rebounds against the dominant Buckeye frontcourt.
WSU prides itself on its fearless mentality in the paint, and no game projected that better than their Elite Eight victory.
The mid-major matched Ohio State’s aggressive play from the tip and locked the Buckeyes down in the final minutes of the game.
By holding the Ohio State powerhouse to 31 percent shooting, the underdogs were victorious with a final score of 70-66.
“It’s crazy,” said Early upon making it to the Final Four. “I still can’t believe we’re here. You try to expect it, but you expect a lot of things that don’t happen. This really happened.”
Unfortunately, that was all that would happen for the Cinderella from Wichita. The Shockers went into Atlanta with task of stopping Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. Despite having the lead most of the game, the Shockers fell to the No. 2 ranked Cardinals, 72-68.
While defensive-minded coaching and physical play (ranking 45th nationally, holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting) forged Wichita’s identity this season, their Tournament success can be credited to junior forward Early.
Early’s road to the Final Four was not a traditional one. He spent two seasons at Division III Sullivan County Community College in New York and did nothing but impress. In his sophomore season at Sullivan, Early dropped 24.2 points per game along with 11.7 rebounds while leading the Generals to a 28-4 record.
He caught Division I attention after being named National Junior College Player of the Year after his freshman season; he started to receive some offers after he won his second straight Player of the Year honor.
In the limelight of March, Early stepped up and willed the Shockers to the Final Four, averaging 16.2 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game during the Tourney.
As expected from a player of his caliber, his best performance came with the spotlight on—24 points and 10 boards versus the Cardinals in Atlanta. In just three years, Early has gone from Division III junior college basketball, to potential NBA lottery pick.
Players like Early have changed the landscape of college basketball and are the reason we will never see a perfect bracket. Recruiting has improved, prompting the rise of the mid-majors.
By finding a Division III junior college player to almost 1,500 miles from the WSU campus, Gregg Marshall has the foundation for a powerhouse in years to come.
Wichita State was not the story that George Mason was in 2006 because this has become the norm. Mid-majors like Wichita, Saint Louis and VCU are legitimate contenders year after year because of coaches like Marshall, Rick Majerus and Shaka Smart.
After the Louisville loss, Marshall was asked about the Shocker disappointment.
“We didn’t say this is it,” he said. “This is just a beginning for us. We’ve got a lot of good, young players in that locker room. All they’re talking about right now is working hard this summer and getting better.”
Wichita State is here to stay, giving us one more reason to love March Madness.