Wichita State and La Salle are true bracket busters. Neither team was guaranteed to survive its first game, which for the Explorers was a play-in game, but now both teams stand four victories away from winning the national championship.
The Shockers have been one of the tournament's most impressive teams thus far. They crushed a Pittsburgh squad that could have easily been ranked several seeds higher and backed that win up by knocking out Gonzaga, the West region's top seed.
La Salle survived an opening-round clash with Boise State, but entered its game against Kansas State as an overlooked underdog. After bursting out to a big first-half lead, the Explorers fended off a late rally from the No. 4 seed. Then they beat Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss in Round 3.
Since both teams were expected to get eliminated quickly, they enter the second week of the tournament without the pressure that the top seeds will face. Here's all the key viewing information for the Thursday clash and some players to watch as they battle for an Elite Eight spot.
Where: Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
When: Thursday, March 28 at 10:17 p.m. ET
Live Stream: March Madness Live
Betting Line: Wichita State -4 (via Vegas Insider)
Injury Report (via USA Today)
Wichita State: Evan Wessel (out, finger)
La Salle: Steve Zack (out, foot)
What's At Stake?
The impact a trip to the Elite Eight can have on a mid-major program like Wichita State or La Salle is enormous. While both teams come from high-level mid-major conferences, they are still not on the same level as the Big Ten or the ACC.
It's a golden opportunity to start building the program into a perennial tournament contender, similar to what Gonzaga has done. The Bulldogs have had some success during March Madness in the past and were able to receive the top seed in a region this year from having developed a reputation as a regular tournament team.
The Shockers and Explorers are still in the early phases of that process. That said, the deeper they go in this year's tournament, the quicker they can start making a bigger impact on the recruiting trail. And it has a trickle-down effect from there.
Players to Watch
Wichita State: Cleanthony Early
Early is a rarity in that he leads Wichita State in scoring despite coming off the bench. He ranks second on the team in rebounding and blocked shots while shooting 45 percent from the field. He also can help stretch the defense by knocking down outside shots.
What he's shown during the tournament is an ability to adapt. Against Pittsburgh, it was a slow grind, and he found himself working down low. He used his size and athleticism to get to the free-throw line eight times and scored 21 points.
The upset of Gonzaga was a more wide-open contest, and he responded by spending more time on the perimeter, hitting four threes. He can expect a similar type of game against La Salle. As long as he stays out of foul trouble, which has been an issue for him, he will play a vital role again.
La Salle: Ramon Galloway
Through three tournament games, Galloway is averaging over 21 points and four rebounds. The senior guard has played at least 35 minutes in each contest and has been on fire from beyond the arc (12-of-23). He's been the driving force behind the team's surprising run.
The best thing about Galloway is his feel for the game. It seems like whenever the La Salle offense is starting to sputter, he senses it and that's when he takes over. Otherwise, he knows there are three other players averaging in double figures and capable of sharing the load.
Just like each of the Explorers' past two games, this one should be close. How Galloway responds to the pressure and the added defensive attention in the final 10 minutes of the second half will likely decide if another upset is in the cards for La Salle.
Key Matchup: Carl Hall vs. Jerrell Wright
Hall and Wright are very similar players. While they are surrounded by versatile forwards and scoring guards, their job is to protect the paint. Hall averages a couple more points while both post just a shade under seven rebounds per game.
It's a crucial matchup because, since they play the same role, if either one of them can gain a significant edge in the paint, it will give their team a huge advantage. Heading into the game it looks like it should be a wash.
Ultimately, it should be an entertaining battle throughout the game. If either forward is going to take control, the odds are good it will be Hall. He has more experience and has been playing really well since the calendar turned to March.
Even though this game doesn't feature nearly the amount of star power as some of the other Sweet 16 matchups, that shouldn't impact the excitement level. It's a matchup that definitely has overtime potential and should go right down to the wire.
All told, the slight edge goes to the Shockers. Beating Pittsburgh with such ease and then upsetting Gonzaga shows they belong in the Elite Eight and, if they continue to play at such a high level, the run doesn't have to end there.
Wichita State 68, La Salle 66
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