WICHITA, Kan.—Moments after the final horn sounded and history had been made, the Wichita State Shockers bounced around the hardwood at Koch Arena, holding up copies of a pre-printed newspaper that had their achievement headlined in bold.
Seniors Cleanthony Early, Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins celebrated with their parents at midcourt while sophomore Ron Baker, who fittingly wears No. 31, pointed to the numerals on his jersey as 10,506 fans went berserk.
“Un-de-feat-ed!,” they chanted after a 68-45 victory over Missouri State. “Un-de-feat-ed!”
Watching a few feet away near the sideline, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall could only smile. One year after reaching the Final Four, Wichita State can now add another monumental feat to its resume after becoming the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2003-04 to finish the regular season without a blemish.
“Pretty special,” Marshall said softly. “Pretty special.”
It should be.
But is it?
The disturbing truth is that what happened Saturday—and, for that matter, what’s transpired all season—means little to anyone beyond the Kansas borders. If Wichita State wins next week’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament, it will become the first team in 23 years to enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record.
Yet still, there will be naysayers who believe the only way the Shockers can legitimize themselves is with a deep postseason run. Maybe even a second straight Final Four.
“We won’t be judged on this,” point guard Fred VanVleet said. “The way we play in the tournament is how we’ll be judged. If we play well, people will say 31-0 was legit. If we don’t play well, they’ll say 31-0 was a fluke.
“That’s the sad thing about the world we live in.”
“Those people are stupid,” he said. “That’s honestly what you’d call people who say that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, 31-0 doesn’t mean we’re going to win the tournament. Neither does 20-6. It’s about how you play when that day comes.”
If only Wichita State’s detractors had the maturity of the Shockers themselves.
Maybe then they’d be able to put what has happened thus far into perspective instead of fueling the childish narrative that Wichita State is unproven, that it lacks the talent to compete with college basketball’s upper echelon, that its achievement is the product of a weak non-league schedule and a normally strong conference mired in a transition year.
“Discounting what we’ve done and not giving credence to how hard it is...that’s ridiculous,” Marshall said. “I don’t care who you play or what league you’re in, (going undefeated) isn’t something to be taken lightly.”
Indeed, if posting a goose egg in the loss column was such a ho-hum accomplishment, then why hasn’t it been done more often?
In an excellent column last week, Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News pointed out that 23 seasons have come and gone since since UNLV entered the 1991 NCAA tournament without a loss.
“We know how special it is,” VanVleet said. “Do you know how hard it is to go 31-0? It’s something you have to respect.”
Whether they’re lurking on the Internet or barking from a radio or television set, there seem to be plenty of people who disagree.
Negativity is en vogue these days thanks to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Instead of praising teams for their achievements and strengths—and, good gracious, Wichita State has tons of them—it’s become more popular to nitpick their weaknesses and invent new shortcomings.
Rather than cheer for their own teams, fans take more pleasure in ripping apart others. And no school the past few weeks has absorbed more barbs than the Shockers. Most of them are undeserved.
It’s true that Wichita State’s strength of schedule—ranked No. 100 going into this week—leaves a bit to be desired. But that’s not completely the Shockers’ fault. High-profile schools from bigger conferences don’t want to play Marshall’s squad because they don’t want to agree to a home-and-home deal that would include a game at Koch Arena, one of the loudest, most daunting venues in the country.
They’re the ones who are scared. Not Wichita State.
Also, let’s not forget that the Shockers topped No. 10 Saint Louis on the road. Or that they defeated Tennessee and Alabama, who were picked to finish third and fourth, respectively, in the SEC. Or that they beat a BYU team that had walloped Texas one night earlier in the CBE Classic. Or that they housed perennial NCAA tournament contenders Davidson and Western Kentucky.
Most impressive is that the Shockers won their 18 conference games by an average of 15.6 points, all while toting a mammoth target on their backs. The saying “all teams have an off-night” hasn’t applied at Wichita State.
Meanwhile, Syracuse got bludgeoned at Virginia Saturday and has a loss to ACC bottom-feeder Boston College. Texas curb-stomped Kansas, which needed a lucky bounce to win at Texas Tech. Michigan State has lost back-to-back home games to unranked Nebraska and Illinois and Arizona needed overtime to get by Utah.
Yet there are those who believe Wichita State isn’t in the same category as those teams. How could anyone say that after last season, when Marshall’s club beat Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to the Final Four, where they trailed eventual NCAA champion Louisville by one possession with less than a minute remaining?
That was hardly a fluke run.
And breaking news, people: This, for the most part, is the same group of players. Only they’re older now. And better.
“If we play well, we’ve got a chance to play with and beat anyone in the country,” Marshall said. “This year’s tournament is wide open. There’s probably at least two handfuls of teams that could win the whole thing this year, and I think we’re in the conversation.”
Especially if Wichita State remains focused.
After their practice Friday night, Wichita State received a visit from legendary coach Bob Knight, whose 1975-76 Indiana squad was the last team to win an NCAA title with an undefeated record.
“He said our 31-0 record isn’t going to matter in the tournament,” Early said. “It’s all about who plays their hardest and who plays the best that particular night.
“He told us to never let success get to our head or failure get to our heart. We’ve got to grind smart and grind hard. If we do that, there’s a chance for anything. Anything is possible.”
The Shockers are confident enough to win it all but realistic enough to know that may not happen. They saw how people reacted after their win against No. 1 seed Gonzaga last year. The Zags entered the round-of-32 game with a 32-2 record.
“They were a great team—a great team,” VanVleet said. “But because they lost to us, they’re remembered as one of the worst No. 1 seeds ever. That’s not right. One loss shouldn’t ruin a season.”
Wichita State will keep that in mind as it prepares for the postseason. As hard as they’re going to try to win the NCAA tournament, the Shockers have vowed to never undervalue the feat they’ve already achieved. The feat that hundreds of teams strive for each year and never accomplish.
Rest assured, those copies of The Wichita Eagle with “31-0” plastered across the top will be keepsakes for the rest of their lives.
“This is something no one can ever take from us,” Early said. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t downplay greatness.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.