Jul 31, 2014, 1:15 PM EST
The NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event in the United States, and if it wasn’t for the unification of ‘Murica in support of the stars and stripes at the World Cup this past June, I think that you would be hard-pressed to find anything that can hold a vice-grip on the ever-dwindling attention span of an entire nation of sports fans for a month like March Madness can.
But while you are filling out your brackets and wildly cheering on that No. 13 seed, hoping a team without a single player that you can name pulls off the upset, the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament can be a fickle beast for the people participating in it.
One tough draw, one off night, and an entire season’s body of work can be forgotten in the annals of history. Deep tournament runs and early tourney exits are remembered much more vividly than, say, a regular season conference title. A 25-win season might get a coach a raise. A trip to the Sweet 16 will get him a better job. The tourney is always holding trump cards.
Case in point: Wichita State.
This past season, the Shockers put together arguably the single-greatest regular season of all-time. They entered the NCAA tournament at 34-0 after steamrolling through league play with very few real challenges while posting the best regular season record in the history of college basketball. But thanks to No. 8-seed Kentucky, a preseason top five team that didn’t figure out how to play together until the night before the SEC tournament, the Shockers were sent packing without reaching the second weekend of the tournament.
All it took was one game — one game where Wichita State played as well as they had all season, losing one of the best-played, most entertaining games you’ll watch — to turn a historical year into a footnote for a team that didn’t make the Sweet 16.
“It was really great to go 35-0, that’s a really great accomplishment,” star guard Ron Baker told NBCSports at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy last month. “But the regular season is kind of a season in itself. When you get to the tournament, it almost feels like a whole nother year. A different season. And for us, that result was pretty disappointing.”
Wichita State had gone almost a full year in between losses, and for Baker, it was difficult for him to process that such a successful season had come to such an abrupt halt. “I reflected on it a lot,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until the sting from the upset wore off that he was truly able to appreciate what he and his team were able to do. “Once the season’s over and you sit down for a couple days, you slow down and think about what you accomplished.
“And it’s pretty phenomenal, especially when you look back in history. We’re the only team to go 35-0. It’s been special.”
“We had an amazing year,” point guard Fred Van Vleet told NBCSports during a break in the action at the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey in June. “We don’t really define our season off of that game.”
That appreciation wasn’t there while the Shockers were in the middle of their run, however. They weren’t thinking about what an undefeated season would mean historically or how they had a chance to get their names in the record books. They were focused on winning, on doing the things that it took to make sure that they kept that ‘0’ in their loss column.
They were on a mission.
“It was really hard to enjoy it during the season,” Baker said. “There’s practice every day. Weights, lifting. And we’re all competitive. [We did our] best to have fun with it.”
The season before Wichita State made a run at perfection, they were the latest in a long line of cinderellas from the mid-major ranks that traipsed their way through their region and into the Final Four.
And they did it despite the fact that their regular season ended in frustration.
In 2012-2013, the Shockers started the season 19-2, going 8-1 in Missouri Valley play and climbing to No. 15 in the country before losing three straight and five of their last ten regular season games. They wound up in the 8-9 game in the same bracket as Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed. But between a hot-shooting second half that sparked an upset of the ‘Zags and a beneficial draw in the later rounds that gave the Shockers matchups with La Salle and Ohio State, Marshall’s band of misfits made it all the way to the Final Four. And if it wasn’t for Louisville guard Tim Henderson’s heroics, they might have found themselves in the national title game.
It creates a weird dynamic, as the Shockers may end up being better remembered for a season in which they struggled through February and early March than for the year where they won their first 35 games. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but the casual fan will likely put more stock in winning four games on national television in the NCAA tournament than they will 34 games on ESPN3 in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Springfield, Missouri.
It also creates expectations. Baker is a redshirt sophomore. He’s entering his fourth year in the program, during which time the Shockers have made three NCAA tournaments, won two regular season titles and a MVC tournament title, reached a Final Four and earned a No. 1 seed with an undefeated regular season. Prior to his arrival, the Shockers had made one NCAA tournament since 1988.
What happens if the Shockers “only” win the conference and fail to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season?
“If we would’ve done that six years ago at Wichita State, they would have been really pleased,” Baker said. “Now, to make the tournament, it’s expected of us,” but to listen to the two Shockers stars speak, those expectations and that notoriety are what drive them.
“[Success brings] a little bit more popularity, people recognize you. Respect as well,” Van Vleet said. “Those two things are nice. With that comes a lot more work that you’ve got to put in to keep getting better. You don’t want to plateau out.”
What “a lot more work” includes has been early morning workouts for Van Vleet, Baker and senior guard Tekele Cotton, as they spent part of their summer waking up at 6:30 a.m. to workout before coaching at Wichita State’s summer basketball camp. And that would be just the first or two or three workouts on a typical day.
“I’ve never done that before,” Van Vleet said with a laugh. “I’m not a morning guy.”
For Baker, that work included improving his mid-range game, floaters and 8-10 foot finishes, as well as his ability to create separation off the bounce and get to the rim on straight line drives. For Van Vleet, he’s been focused on improving his athleticism and his ability to be a scorer, which is something that both players will need to improve upon without Cleanthony Early around to shoulder the scoring load.
And if they can do that, the Shockers should once again be a team capable of making the Sweet 16 and advancing further, but that won’t leave them satisfied.
“Honestly, we look at [Gonzaga, Butler and VCU] and see what they’ve built, and I’m sure Coach Marshall feels that he wants to build something like that, but the goal is always a national championship,” Van Vleet said. “Make it to that game, play in that game, win that game.
“I would be lying to say that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season.”
Nov 27, 2014, 3:14 AM EST
A lot is riding on this season for St. John’s. Can they consistently be the ‘grown up’ team they claimed to be on Wednesday night?
Nov 27, 2014, 3:07 AM EST
Two Big East teams made statements in the Bahamas, and No. 3 Arizona won the Maui Invitational.
Nov 27, 2014, 2:07 AM EST
Arizona scored 22 points off of 14 San Diego State turnovers, and that along with good foul shooting proved to be the difference.
Nov 27, 2014, 12:56 AM EST
Georgetown committed 19 turnovers, but they shot 49 percent from the field and earned another quality win for the Big East.
Nov 26, 2014, 10:22 PM EST
Through five games Louisville is shooting 24-for-105 from three. They’ll need to shoot better than that when Ohio State visits next Tuesday.
Nov 26, 2014, 9:11 PM EST
Sir’Dominic Pointer picked off Minnesota center Elliot Eliason’s outlet pass and made the big man pay for his mistake.
Nov 26, 2014, 8:05 PM EST
Justin Reed was one of America East’s best guards in each of his first two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2014-15.
Nov 26, 2014, 6:42 PM EST
After launching 22 three-pointers in the first half, Oklahoma took a wiser approach to the offensive end of the floor as they outlasted No. 22 UCLA.
Nov 26, 2014, 5:29 PM EST
It’s hard to put too much stake in one loss, but there are a couple of things from this game that we need to keep an eye on.
Nov 26, 2014, 5:24 PM EST
Cameron Biedscheid averaged 6.2 points per game as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012-13.
Nov 26, 2014, 4:37 PM EST
Joining Cullen Neal on the sideline is Arthur Edwards, who is expected to miss 4-6 weeks thanks to a dislocated finger.
Nov 26, 2014, 3:51 PM EST
The importance of this win for Butler cannot be overstated.
Nov 26, 2014, 3:19 PM EST
JayVaughn Pinkston is the leader and go-to guy for Villanova. And he is not their star because … why?
Nov 26, 2014, 12:02 PM EST
Gordon is averaging 10.5 points this season.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:20 AM EST
Not a bad way to kick off the Thanksgiving weekend
Nov 26, 2014, 9:00 AM EST
He was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault.
Nov 26, 2014, 7:00 AM EST
Angry John Beilein is the best John Beilein.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:28 AM EST
Pinkston made a couple of huge plays down the stretch.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:10 AM EST
Another busy night of college hoops as the Maui semifinals wrap up and Arkansas gets a statement road win.
Nov 25, 2014, 11:50 PM EST
Maryland pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young season as they outplayed No. 13 Iowa State for much of the game in front of a pro-Cyclone crowd in Kansas City.
- St. John’s seniors say they ‘grew up’ against Minnesota, but have they? 0
- The little things made a big difference in No. 3 Arizona’s win over No. 15 San Diego State 0
- Butler upsets No. 5 North Carolina in Battle 4 Atlantis opener 2
- If No. 12 Villanova doesn’t have a star on their roster, no one told JayVaughn Pinkston 0
- JayVaughn Pinkston’s block gives No. 12 Villanova a win over No. 19 Michigan (VIDEO) 2
- Maryland upsets No. 13 Iowa State as fearless freshmen mix with gritty veterans for balanced effort 3
- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s selflessness during the Maui Invitational will help No. 3 Arizona in the long run 0
- Poll: 54 percent of people think Kentucky beats the 76ers, 54 percent of people are dumb (31)
- Villanova’s win is evidence of why VCU may have peaked as a basketball program (14)
- Michigan’s John Beilein rips ESPN for late tip time during Tuesday’s loss (13)
- Rick Pitino on blow out win: ‘We played four white guys and an Egyptian’ (12)
- College Basketball Talk’s latest top 25: Kentucky reigns, but how far will Kansas, Florida slide? (5)