Philadelphia, PA – Final Four weekend is generally reserved for the premier programs from the power conferences, but this is one of those years when a team has defied the odds.
The system is supposed to pit what is thought to be the top four teams in the country against each other in the final days in order to anoint the top school at the Division I level. More often than not, several of those top- notch groups are hanging around in the last days of the postseason, typically representing the ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten the Big 12 and maybe even the Pac-12 or possibly the SEC.
One side of this year's bracket fields familiar teams in Michigan and Syracuse, a pair of fourth seeds who caught fire at just the right time, while the other includes Louisville, considered the best of the best, the elite of the top four seeds in the four regions. The gruesome injury over the weekend to Kevin Ware may very well have sparked the Cardinals to a lopsided victory against perennial favorite Duke, but surely the team would have preferred to get the job done without the brutal inspiration.
All three of those teams have extensive histories in this tournament, anchored by multiple trips to the Final Four and several national titles, not to mention being highly ranked in the polls this season. For one of them to bring home the trophy this year would not be much of a surprise.
However, the wild card in all of this is a sleeper team in Wichita State. Residing in the middle of the contiguous United States, the 34th state added to the union back in 1861, is typically represented by either Kansas or Kansas State in such matters. Both the Jayhawks and the Wildcats have been regular attendees of the annual event, but the Shockers have usually been relegated to other postseason events.
Coached by Gregg Marshall, Wichita State is a team that set a new single- season record for victories with 30 this season, one more than the team had two years ago when it won the postseason NIT. Marshall, who had a mountain of success while at Winthrop University, was able to get the Shockers into the NCAA Tournament last year, but they were quickly ushered out in their ninth appearance in the event.
Hailing from the Missouri Valley Conference, a league steeped in basketball tradition but light on championship status, the Shockers have often played second fiddle to a number of other programs in the MVC, many of which the casual fan would be challenged to name. In fact, 2012-13 was another campaign in which the Shockers were hidden in the shadow of Creighton, a squad led by All-American Doug McDermott, yet the Bluejays were escorted out of the NCAA Tournament during the first week of games by Duke (66-50) in the third round, after taking out Cincinnati (67-63) two days earlier.
Despite being recognized as one of the oldest conferences in the nation, the MVC continues to get very little respect, although Creighton and Wichita State have done well to raise the league's national visibility of late. Then again, this is a conference that hasn't had a team in the national spotlight this late in the season since Indiana State and a smooth-shooting Larry Bird battled Magic Johnson and Michigan State in 1979.
By the way, both Kansas and Kansas State were once a part of the MVC, the same goes for Louisville (1963-74) strangely enough. Because the Cardinals were competitors in the league for over a decade, they do have a history against WSU, a 19-5 series advantage, although the team's have not met since the Bicentennial.
The Shockers, who lost to Creighton in the title game of the MVC Tournament by a mere three points (68-65), have put up some very convincing wins in this tourney, beginning with a 73-55 rout of Pittsburgh. With the victory, WSU was rewarded with a meeting against top-seeded and top-ranked Gonzaga in the third round. The Shockers never backed down as they came away with the 76-70 win to advance to the Sweet 16 for just the second time since 1982.
Wichita State caught a bit of a break in the regional semifinals last week with La Salle having put together a magical run of its own to advance as a 13th-seed. The Shockers took control of the meeting early and never looked back, registering a 72-58 win over the Explorers to move into the Elite Eight which is rarified territory for any program from the Missouri Valley Conference.
It was just assumed that the Shockers would have their luck run out against mighty Ohio State, but someone forgot to tell Wichita State and coach Marshall who refused to go quietly back to Kansas. Instead the Shockers came up with a stunning 70-66 triumph and a trip to Atlanta.
Of the current members of the Missouri Valley Conference, only Bradley has been to the Final Four twice, now matched by Wichita State, which made its first appearance back in 1965 when it was overwhelmed by both UCLA (108-89) and Princeton (118-82) in the showcase in Portland, Oregon.
Far from being household names, the Shockers have a trio of players scoring in double figures, with Cleanthony Early holding down the top spot with his 13.7 ppg. Carl Hall, who cut off his trademark dreadlocks heading into the NCAA Tournament to signal a fresh start for WSU, is responsible for not only 12.5 ppg, but also a team-best 6.9 rpg and 55 blocked shots. The West Regional Most Outstanding Player, Malcolm Armstead accounts for another 10.9 ppg and has been instrumental in moving the offense along with his 150 assists over the course of 38 starts. At the defensive end of the floor, Armstead has recorded a team-best 74 steals which is impressive in itself.
There's no rule that says a team from the MVC can't take home the big prize, Cincinnati did it twice (1961-62) as did Oklahoma A&M (1945-46), but more often than not the system is stacked against them.
Once again, Wichita State is hoping to buck the trend.