2013 Final Four: Wichita State Shockers
The Missouri Valley Conference Cinderella is not ready to call it a dance just yet.
Describing Wichita State merely as a second-place team from the MVC and No. 9 seed in this NCAA tournament really is underselling the story. Because this is crazier than just that, when you consider the Shockers are also a team that lost their top five scorers from last year.
Think about that for a moment.
Kentucky lost its top six scorers and fell to the NIT.
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Wichita State lost its top five scorers and jumped to the Final Four.
So, needless to say, Gregg Marshall -- a man who's made nine NCAA tournaments in 15 years as a head coach despite never working at a power-conference school or traditional power -- is pretty good at what he does. Yes, the South Carolina native acknowledged this weekend that his Shockers are playing with "house money." But he also made it clear that their plan is to play two more games, win two more games and become the lowest-seeded team in history to win the NCAA tournament. So let's not write the final chapter on the Shockers just yet.
Here's everything you need to know about Wichita State:
Coach: Gregg Marshall | NCAA tournament record: 5-8
Marshall's best finish: Final Four in 2013 (current)
Assistants: Chris Jans, Greg Heiar, K.T. Turner
G: Malcolm Armstead
G: Ron Baker
F: Cleanthony Early
F: Carl Hall
Top reserve: G: Fred Van Vleet
Leading scorer: Cleanthony Early (13.7 points per game)
Leading rebounder: Carl Hall (6.9 rebounds per game)
National titles: None | Last Final Four: 1965
How Wichita State got here: The Shockers received an at-large bid to the Field of 68 -- specifically the No. 9 seed in the West region -- after losing to Creighton in the MVC tournament title game. They beat eighth-seeded Pittsburgh in the Round of 64, top-seeded Gonzaga in the Round of 32, 13th-seeded La Salle in the Sweet 16 and second-seeded Ohio State in the Elite Eight to become the first MVC member to make the Final Four since Larry Bird took Indiana State there in 1979.
Why Wichita State might win it all: The Shockers have already topped the team that was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll on Selection Sunday (Gonzaga) and the team that won the conference tournament for the nation's toughest league (Ohio State). And if you can do those two things, you can do anything, right? Beyond that, there's not a single school left (including Louisville) that hasn't lost to somebody worse than Wichita State. So is it a long shot? Yes. But don't let anybody tell you it's impossible.
Why Wichita State might not win it all: Because the Shockers are playing Louisville on Saturday. Duh! Seriously, there's a reason why the Cardinals opened as a 10-point favorite over Wichita State, and it has more to do with the Cardinals than it does Wichita State. In case you didn't know, Rick Pitino's team has won 14 straight games by an average of 17.3 points, including four NCAA tournament games by an average of 21.8 points. So why won't Wichita State win it all? The simple answer is because Louisville probably is going to win it all.
Player to watch: Gregg Marshall called Cleanthony Early an "interesting bird" Saturday after the 6-foot-8 forward collapsed on the court in pain ... only to return a few minutes later against Ohio State. "[He's like the] boy who cried wolf with injuries," Marshall said. "I had seen that many times this season. I thought we'd have to call the ambulance or get out a stretcher or whatnot, and the next thing I know he's back in practice." So, yeah, Early is an interesting bird. But he's also an awesome junior-college transfer. The New York native was a Junior college All-American during both his freshman and sophomore seasons at Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College. He's averaging 13.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in his first season at the Division I level.
One guy soaring: Malcolm Armstead began his college career at Chipola Junior College in Florida, then transferred to Oregon for his junior season, then transferred to Wichita State for his senior season, this season. And it didn't get off to a great start. The 6-foot guard scored two-or-fewer points in three of his first four games with the Shockers. But Armstead got 17 in his fifth (a win over DePaul), and he's been a steady contributor for much of the season, especially lately. The Alabama native is averaging 17.5 points in Wichita State's past six games, including 15.5 in this tournament. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional.
One guy slumping: I'm not sure if Ron Baker is actually "slumping," but he did miss all three field-goal attempts -- including a layup in the final minute -- against Ohio State. Truth be told, it's difficult to find a recent slumping candidate on Wichita State's roster because if a key piece were genuinely struggling the Shockers probably wouldn't be in the Final Four. All in all, the players are mostly performing well.
Notable stat: The Shockers are a tremendous rebounding team -- proof being how they grab 73.7 percent of their opponents' misses and 38.0 percent of their own misses. Both numbers rank among the top 20 nationally. That's what allows Wichita State to stay in games even when its players aren't shooting particularly well.
Final thought: This Wichita State run is blowing conventional wisdom to pieces because the Shockers are neither a supremely talented team from a power conference nor an experienced team from a nonpower conference. They don't really fit into any previously established category. They're all junior college guys or lightly regarded high school prospects, only one of whom (Carl Hall) played a significant role on last season's team. Bottom line, it's remarkable that they're on their way to Atlanta given the makeup of the roster.
So I realize Rick Pitino's quest for a second title is a big story.
And that Syracuse and Michigan are national brands.
But Wichita State deserves its share of the spotlight this week, too.
The Shockers have earned it. Against all odds, they've earned it.
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