LOS ANGELES -- It's always interesting, when something like this happens, to try to identify the exact point the underdogs started to believe they could make history. When six junior college recruits imagined a Final Four was realistic. When a man who has never worked at a power-conference school -- not as a head coach, not as an assistant, not ever -- decided doing so might not be necessary to reach the top of college basketball.
So I asked.
I asked the players.
I asked the coaching staff.
I asked family members of the players and the coaching staff.
The answers varied, as you might expect, but my favorite response came from Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans. He said that moment came nine days ago, after the Shockers handled Pittsburgh in the Round of 64, while they were watching top-seeded Gonzaga struggle against Southern.
"I think watching that game gave our kids confidence," Jans told me late Saturday on the court here at Staples Center while those same kids were posing with a West Regional trophy. "Our kids were like, 'If they're [playing with Gonzaga], we surely should be able to do it.' And I really think that changed our kids' mentality."
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In other words, Gonzaga looking beatable against a No. 16 seed made a No. 9 seed believe it could, two nights later, beat a No. 1 seed. Then they did it. And if you can beat a No. 1 seed in the Round of 32, then you can certainly beat a No. 13 seed (La Salle) in the Sweet 16. And if you can do that, then what in the world is so scary about facing a No. 2 seed (Ohio State) in the Elite Eight?
Answer: Nothing, really.
So you might've been surprised when Wichita State jumped to a big lead against the Buckeyes -- a lead so big that Ohio native John Legend and his fiancee, Chrissy Teigen, left their courtside seats early -- and held on for a 70-66 win that launched a Missouri Valley Conference member into the Final Four for the first time since 1979, but the Shockers weren't. Nine days earlier, while watching the WCC champs limp past Southern in Salt Lake City, they decided anything was possible, even a trip to Atlanta.
And now they're heading to Atlanta.
"Let's go down to GA!" yelled Wichita State's Carl Hall, big smile on his face, the kind that's hard to erase when you send the Big Ten tournament champions home prematurely. So Hall was smiling. And Cleanthony Early couldn't stop smiling. And Malcolm Armstead was looking like the happiest Most Outstanding Player in regional history.
The only Wichita State player with a serious tone?
That was Ron Baker.
He was still peeved about his missed layup that gave OSU hope with 31 seconds left.
"I should've dunked it," Baker said. "I should've dunked it."
But there's no sense in dwelling on that now.
Somebody reminded Baker of that.
"I'm happy," he said. "It's my birthday, so I've been happy all day."
And all night, presumably.
Because the Shockers are finally front and center.
They spent the regular season overshadowed by Creighton in the MVC and the past week overshadowed by Florida Gulf Coast in this event, the latter of which cost Wichita State all the stories that typically accompany a run like this when a team A) operates outside of the power-conference structure, B) is seeded in the bottom half of a regional, and C) features a bunch of under-the-radar recruits who play hard. Wichita State has, since it beat Pitt nine days ago, been a great story. But it's never been as great as the Florida Gulf Coast story. And Gregg Marshall's wife is a nice woman, but she has never been on the cover of Maxim. So the nation was focused elsewhere, for good reason.
But now look.
Wichita State is headed to Atlanta.
And the Shockers don't seem content just yet.
There was a neat moment when Marshall climbed six steps on a blue ladder to snip the last piece of net on the rim. He cut the nylon, grabbed it with his right hand and held it high, as if he were trying to touch those Lakers banners. He swirled it a little, too.
Then Marshall held up four fingers.
Then two fingers.
And then the Wichita State fans, these same fans who help fill Koch Arena each night but have never experienced anything like this, started chanting with their coach. "Four! Two! One! ... Four! Two! One! ... Four! Two! One!"
The message was simple.
Yes, Wichita State is the fifth team from a non-power conference to make the Final Four in the past eight seasons, and the coaches and players are proud of that. But they're not satisfied. They talked less about how great making the Final Four is and more about how wonderful it would be to win the national title, which wasn't necessarily the case with George Mason, VCU and Butler before them. So they're happy to be one of the four teams left, obviously. But they'll be disappointed if they're not one of the final two, feel one win short if they're not cutting nets again nine nights from now in the Georgia Dome.
Four! Two! One!
Can the Shockers get there?
They won't be the favorites, that's for sure. But they've already topped a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed, thoroughly handled two teams that lots of people thought could get there. So if they can do that, why can't they do the whole thing? That's the question that Marshall will spend the next week asking his players. At this point, you'd best believe, they'll approach the challenge believing they can and probably should.
"We're not planning on stopping," Marshall said. "Our goal was not to just get to the Final Four and celebrate. Other teams -- Butler, VCU, George Mason -- have done that. But we want to one-up everybody, and getting to the championship game and winning, that would one-up everybody. So that's what we're trying to do. We want to one-up everybody. And this team can do it. I've been telling them. This team can do it. I believe that."