Wichita State Seeks Another Final Four Berth

Two years ago, the Wichita State Shockers literally shocked the college hoops world when the team made the Final Four of the 2013 NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed, knocking off teams like No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State in the process. The following year, the team from the scrappy Missouri Valley Conference was the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region and went completely undefeated before losing a tough one to No. 8 (and eventual tourney runner-up) Kentucky in the Round of 32.

This year, however, the Shockers are in a position to repeat the events of two years ago. After a season that saw them go 27-3 overall (17-1 MVC), Wichita State is back in the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 7 seed, having just beaten the No. 10 Indiana Hoosiers of the Big Ten and the in-state rival No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks of the Big 12. Next, they’ll have to take on No. 3 Notre Dame, a team that has a lot of heart and can also play at a fast pace.

This Wichita State squad definitely can get into the Elite Eight, but it’s still an uphill battle. Heart counts for a lot, but it can only go so far once the Sweet Sixteen begins.


Season Profile

As I mentioned earlier, Wichita State had an excellent season. In fact, they were the MVC regular season champions. However, this is the big dance, and regular season numbers mean nothing.

Moreover, with all due respect to the conference, it isn’t exactly a hotbed of competition compared to the ACC or Big Ten. Save for Wichita State and the upstart Northern Iowa Panthers, there is next to no competition in the MVC. As a result, the closest thing to a regular season signature win out of conference that the Shockers had was their second game of the season against the Memphis Tigers on November 18.

But as I just said, the regular season is meaningless in the NCAA Tournament, and Wichita State is showing that right now. With wins over Indiana and Kansas, this team has proven that it means business and is not one to be taken lightly, regardless of which conference it happens to play in. Granted, Indiana made it into the tournament pool by the skin of its teeth this year, but the fact that it was a close game is significant in that it means the Shockers were tested.

Notre Dame will be a different kind of monster, as the Fighting Irish ranked 12th in the nation in scoring and second in field-goal percentage, plus they are rallying behind head coach Mike Brey after the longtime head coach lost his mother on Saturday. This Shockers team is scrappy as ever though, and they definitely have the necessary tools to take another step forward after another strong overall season.


Head Coach Spotlight: Gregg Marshall

Based on his time at Wichita State alone, Gregg Marshall might be the most underrated coach in the game today. Since arriving in Wichita in 2007, he has turned the school’s program from a mere mid-major into a perennial tournament contender. While he did take the Shockers to the Final Four in 2013, he also led the team to an NIT championship just two years prior.

On the whole, between his time at Wichita State and his previous gig with the Winthrop Eagles of the Big South, Marshall owns a career record of 398-156. Considering how he is only just recently getting recognition for his work, after his Winthrop teams made routine early exits from the big dance, that’s an excellent mark.

In terms of his coaching style, there is only one word necessary: defense. Since Marshall took over, Wichita State has played excellent on-ball defense and makes its bones on forcing jump shots and keeping opponents out of the paint as much as possible. On the offensive end, it’s all about tenacity, unpredictability and not being afraid to either move the ball, absorb contact or take a risk with a jump shot if the player feels so inclined.

This style, especially on the defensive end, keeps the opposition on its heels and unable to formulate a fluid game plan. Even more amazing, a lot of Marshall’s players are either junior college transfers or simply transfers from another school. Long story short, the only way to beat Marshall’s Shockers is to simply outplay them, not exactly an easy task.

Marshall has this team on Cloud Nine right now and hungry for another win. Notre Dame or any other team will have a tough time beating them, and had better plan accordingly.


Team Leader: Ron Baker

Guard play is key in the tournament, and Shockers junior guard Ron Baker is proving to be one of the better men at his position this year. This year, he led the team with 14.9 points per game and was second with 4.5 rebounds per contest. Considering how he’s only 6’3″, 222 pounds, that latter stat is pretty impressive.

What makes Baker the heart and soul of this team is his absolute commitment to excellence. Whether he’s driving the lane and trying to score on someone much larger than himself or taking a spontaneous jump shot and catching a defender off guard, he is absolutely fearless on the court.

That attitude is key to the Shockers advancing to the Elite Eight. Baker plays with the drive and tenacity of someone much bigger than 6’3″, and his never-say-die attitude can only bring Wichita State closer to a championship.

So long as he picks and chooses his shots wisely (of his 11.3 shot attempts per game, six are from three-point range), the team’s odds of advancing will grow. Regardless of how far the Shockers advance, however, their fans will be able to sleep well at night knowing that they have a team leader with one more year of school and who will not stop until he brings the program as much success as possible.


X-Factor: Darius Carter

As great as Wichita State has played over the past few years, in both regular season and tournament play, they are still a relatively inexperienced team in the big dance. This means that they’ll have their hands full with Notre Dame, especially in the paint.

That’s where senior forward Darius Carter comes in. Though vastly undersized at 6’7″, 245 pounds, he is the Shockers’ best (and really only) post player and works the area quite well. On the season, Carter averaged 11.1 points and a team-best 5.3 rebounds per game.

This young man is going to have to give 110 percent and more against a Fighting Irish team that loves to play pick-and-roll, drive the lane and play at a remarkably fast pace. His play in the paint is critical to the Shocker’s smothering defensive attack, and he must not let his lack of size get him down against dangerous guards like Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, as well as 6’10”, 242 big man Zach Auguste.

The long and short of it is that Wichita State can’t win this game if they keep getting beaten under the basket, which means that Carter needs to be great from start to finish.


Final Thoughts

That all being said, can this year’s Wichita State Shockers defeat the tourney-experienced and fast Notre Dame Fighting Irish? Well, the oddsmakers seem to think so.

Wichita State is currently a one-point FAVORITE in the days leading up to Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen tilt. Considering how the game is at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio and just a five-hour drive from Notre Dame’s home city of South Bend, Indiana, those odds are pretty incredible considering how this could very well be a home game for the Fighting Irish.

Who does this writer think will win? I honestly can’t say. Both teams have incredible talent and drive, and are rallying behind incredible causes: Wichita State looking to prove itself as more than just a flash-in-the-pan, and Notre Dame playing for their coach who just lost his mom.

All I can say is that this game is going to be close, regardless of who comes out on top. And if Wichita State can use its signature defense to slow down yet another opponent from a power conference, they’ll be serious contenders for more than just a Final Four berth.


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*Section Photo credit to Harry How, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Denny Medley, USA Today Sports

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