Wichita State would be America’s team, should be America’s team, but the fact is, America doesn’t like an underdog tale as much as it thinks it does.
Oh, there’s love for the little guy, or the mid-major guy, or the whatever-the-unnecessary-label-is guy. But in college basketball, many are predisposed to wanting to keep that team in its place.
We’re pretty deep into an era of men’s college hoops in which any well-devised, well-coached team can make noise in the NCAA tournament, the wackiest, wildest, wonderful-est sporting event ever created. Still, despite the Final Four runs of Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Wichita State over the past eight years, despite the perennial power that Gonzaga has built and San Diego State is building, there’s still this ignorant, annual scrutiny of power teams outside of the power conferences.
It goes beyond the clichéd pondering of what their record would be if they had to play in a major conference. It’s the disdain that some people seemingly have for these teams when arguing against them, acting as if they’re intruders in some private club.
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Wichita State is the recipient of the scorn this time. What did the Shockers do to deserve this? They went 34-0 in a college basketball season that lacked a true dominant team. They ran through a questionable schedule unblemished, and while that hardly makes them comparable to the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, the Shockers managed to avoid the bad losses that befell other top teams.
No one is calling the Shockers the nation’s best team or the national-title favorite. Those superlatives go to Florida (32-2), which has won 26 straight games. Nevertheless, there is an annoyance with Wichita State. And it’s deeper than the debate of whether the Shockers deserved what they received on Selection Sunday: the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is puzzled by what he calls “derogatory” conversation about his team. He isn’t asking to be respected as a giant. He just wants acknowledgment that, even though the Missouri Valley Conference is down, it’s difficult to sweep through 34 games. And he just wants people to remember that the Shockers didn’t come out of nowhere.
They’re a program with a solid tradition, and most important, they went to the Final Four a year ago. And they nearly knocked off eventual national champion Louisville in that semifinal round.
It’s fair to debate Wichita State’s résumé. But if you consider this team a bunch of frauds about to be exposed in the NCAA tournament, then you’re letting big-conference snobbery get in the way of sound thinking. In a year that saw few teams separate themselves, Wichita State is a great story. The Shockers don’t need to go back to the Final Four to justify their No. 1 seed. You earn your seed in the regular season and conference tournament. You don’t have to turn around and live up to it in the Big Dance. It’s too much of a crapshoot tournament.
Many of college basketball’s superpowers have failed to advance to a Final Four as a No. 1 seed. It didn’t make them frauds. It made them victims of the craziest survive-and-advance event in sports.
Gonzaga earned its first No. 1 seed last season, and after much criticism, the Zags lost in the round of 32. And, ha, it was to a No. 9 seed. They were exposed, supposedly.
But that No. 9 seed was Wichita State, which darn near won the whole thing.
This column is a defense of the Shockers, but it wouldn’t be shocking if they lost early this March. Their road to the Final Four could include matchups against No. 8 seed Kentucky — perhaps the nation’s most talented team — in the round of 32, No. 4 seed Louisville in the Sweet 16 and either No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Duke in the Elite Eight. That’s the toughest potential route to the Final Four that any high seed has. The Midwest Region is so loaded it should be allowed to play a double-elimination format.
It’s ridiculous to suggest the Shockers will be forever overrated if they fall somewhere along that gauntlet. It would be a disappointing end to an unbeaten streak, but they’re not playing for the reputation of every mid-major that has come before them or that will come after them.
They’re a good team in a wide-open year of college basketball. They’re the epitome of what the 2013-14 season has been so far. We don’t even know what losing looks like on them, but they’re a safer bet to lose the first weekend than to complete a 40-0 season as national champions. It’s just a small-margin kind of year.
March Madness isn’t a referendum on Wichita State. That team has accomplished plenty with a physical style of play that emphasizes defense and rebounding. Just like a year ago, the Shockers have a “play angry” mantra. It will take an extremely tough team to beat them.
And if an opponent is fortunate enough to do so, it won’t be screaming about eliminating a fraud. It will consider the victory a season-defining effort.
Like it or not, Wichita State is legit. In the context of this college basketball season, the team is a measuring stick.
Doubt the Shockers at your own risk.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer