Wichita State shows it belongs in Final Four after gutsy effort

ATLANTA -- They were the ugly stepchild, the team no one really wanted to see at the Georgia Dome. Sure, Gregg Marshall's Wichita State program was a nice feel-good story. For the first weekend.

But not at the Final Four.

The Shockers would be overwhelmed by Louisville's speed and Gregg Marshall would be outcoached by the guy on the opposite sideline, Rick Pitino. It wasn't a matter of if  Louisville would run away with this one, it was instead an understanding of when the Cardinals would unofficially play for the national title game. This was a complete mismatch.

Louisville against who?  That was the only question I got all week here in Atlanta. Would it be Michigan or Syracuse? No one inquired about my thoughts on the Louisville-Wichita State contest. This was a mere formality, an undercard that had the look and feel of Peter McNeeley trying to going up against Mike Tyson.

Wichita State was a double-digit underdog entering the national semifinal matchup, but midway through the second half it was the Shockers that were in complete control of the game. Wichita State had taken care of the ball, and used a pack line defense, daring a mediocre Louisville team to shoot the ball from the perimeter. The Cardinals struggled -- and for a while, it looked as though Wichita would have a shot at the national title on Monday night.

Marshall's team was up a dozen with about 13 minutes left, but these guys couldn't close it out down the stretch. Louisville shot just 9-of-25 from deep and Wichita State won the battle of the boards (36-33), but the Cardinals were finally able to turn Wichita over and wind up with a 72-68 victory.

"They certainly proved that not only do they belong, but they can play with the best," Marshall said after the loss.

This Wichita State team wasn't even supposed to be here. Remember, Marshall lost all five starters off last year's club, and was picked to finish near the middle of the Missouri Valley. There was the early season victory at VCU that put the Shockers on the national radar, but three consecutive league setbacks put the team in jeopardy of not even making the NCAA tournament.

There was the win against Pittsburgh in the round of 64, but no one really took much notice. Big deal. Then came the victory over No. 1 Gonzaga, but that was followed by everyone discrediting the Zags instead of lauding Wichita State. The next victim was La Salle, which didn't exactly add to the credibility of this team, and then a win over a one-man Ohio State club that resulted in an improbable Final Four berth.

But no one outside of Wichita, Kan., gave this team a shot at pulling the upset against Louisville. I certainly didn't.

These guys showed they belonged on Saturday night. We all expected another George Mason, a group that was just content to make it this far, a team that would get blown out and overwhelmed by the sport's grandest stage as Jim Larranaga's team did against Florida in the Final Four back in 2006.

Instead, they nearly shocked the country.

Wichita State delivered the first blow, scoring the first eight points of the contest. Marshall's team wasn't intimidated at all, and fought every step of the win. That aspect wasn't surprising, since Marshall is a fighter and his players have clearly taken on the personality of their coach. But what was shocking was that the outcome of this game was in doubt as the final seconds ticked off the clock. If not for a quick jump ball call with 6.3 seconds remaining, the Shockers would have had a chance to win the game.

There was nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, Wichita State made its fans and coach proud, but that's no consolation. There were still plenty of red eyes in the room, because these guys could smell this one. It was that close.

"People said we were going to get blown out and be dominated," Wichita State's Nick Wiggins said after the game. "We had it. We were right there."

The players will return back home with memories, plenty of them. How they took down the Zags and had Louisville on the ropes. Marshall may second-guess a few decisions, and wonder what if a couple of those late calls had gone his way. This team won a school-record 30 basketball games this season, and was just a possession or two away from advancing to the national championship game.

Two years ago, these guys were in the NIT national title contest.

"This may be the most important basketball game that I'll ever coach," Marshall said. "It's definitely the most important to the date and it's probably the most important that Wichita State's ever played in."

This one was wound up a shocker, even though Wichita won't be playing on Monday night.

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