KANSAS CITY, MO. — It may not end like that magical run a year ago. The shots may not fall like they did. The bracket may not break.
But realize this about Wichita State: This was supposed to be the year for Gregg Marshall's team.
The Shockers are better than they were a year ago at this time, and they'll probably be better in March too, and if you cannot fathom that, simply look at one result.
Wichita State beat DePaul 90-72 at the Sprint Center on Monday night in Kansas City.
A year ago, just five days earlier in the season, Wichita State beat DePaul 75-62 in Cancun.
"I think they're every bit as good," DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said.
Purnell didn't want to say this team was better, because you just don't compare a team in November to one that went to a Final Four.
And that sort of comparison could be flawed logic, too small a sample size, but my eyes and my head keep coming to the same conclusion.
This is the better version.
The Shockers are led by a point guard, Fred VanVleet, who was the most decorated player Marshall has recruited to Wichita, according to all the recruiting analysts, and this is now his team.
Malcolm Armstead was great. He brought the kind of toughness to Wichita State that Peyton Siva brought to Louisville, but VanVleet is a better scorer, a better ball-handler and more of a natural point guard.
Then, there's Ron Baker the freshman versus Ron Baker the sophomore. And Cleanthony Early the junior versus Cleanthony Early the senior.
"These guys I think are a little better offensively as a group," Marshall said. "Clea's better than he was last year. Fred is better than he was last year. Ron's better than he was last year."
Baker scored 21 against DePaul. Early scored 15. Van Vleet had six assists and one turnover. And Wichita State looked like a team on the offensive end that was playing much later in the season than November.
Consider that the Shockers had just six turnovers against a pressing team that came in forcing a turnover on nearly one out of every four possessions.
Those six turnovers were the second fewest the Blue Demons have allowed in four years under Purnell.
Marshall, with two of his veterans in earshot, pointed out that the defense is really the only thing holding this team back at this point.
"What we want to do is defend and be as tough as we were last year," he said. "I'm not sure we're that yet, but if we can develop into that, I think we'll be pretty good."
Can this team develop that?
"My teams generally get there," he said. "We're not there yet."
Marshall has a track record that didn't need a Final Four for us to believe him when he says they'll get there, and he actually has a few pieces that could make the Shockers even better on that end as well.
Wichita State's inside trio of Kadeem Coleby, Chadrack Lufile and Darius Carter are not nearly as good as Carl Hall on the offensive end, but they're more athletic. And Marshall has enough scorers that they don't need to be Hall.
Marshall will have a better idea of where his team is defensively Tuesday in the CBE Classic championship against a BYU team that is experienced and borderline Top 25.
The Cougars can score—they're averaging 93.2 points per game—and we'll learn how far along that Wichita State defense really is Tuesday night.
Do you believe Wichita State will be better this year than the Final Four team?
Marshall proved last year he can speed that process along pretty quickly. He was replacing five starters a year ago and had three freshmen playing major minutes. Again, it was thought to be a transition year.
This was going to be the year.
And the only thing that has changed is that the Shockers have a slightly bigger target on their back and a different sort of reputation than they would have had.
Before Purnell could leave Monday night, he was asked what Wichita State's weakness is. Is it mid-major size?
Purnell looked like he couldn't believe what he'd just heard and followed the following statement with a certain four-letter word: "I don't consider them a mid-major. You go to a Final Four, c'mon, you're not a mid-major."
And that was in a transition year.