Over the course of the next week, you’re going to hear plenty of Shocker puns. With Wichita St. making the Final Four as a No. 9 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference, the fact that they’re two wins away from a national championship may be shocking to some. However, if you look deeper, it may not be as surprising as it seems.
Yes, it did seem like last year’s Shockers had a better Final Four shot (I picked them to go there). No. 5 Wichita St. from last season was led by its top-five scorers Joe Ragland, Garrett Stutz, Toure’ Murry, Ben Smith and David Kyles. None of those players are on this year’s squad. Shocking? Not quite.
Enter junior Cleanthony Early: a junior college transfer who has morphed into the Shockers’ best player. With averages of 13.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and a combined three blocks/steals/threes per game. That versatility from a 6’ 8” player is not seen too often.
Then there’s Carl Hall, who was on last year’s team. The senior big man is as tough as they come, averaging 12.5 points and 6.9 rebounds. However, what most people didn’t know until the tournament is that Hall is a victim of neurocardiogenic syncope, which is a heart condition that produces an irregular heartbeat and causes Hall to pass out playing basketball on occasion. Despite this huge obstacle, Hall has taken the necessary steps to keep himself healthy and has thrived through something that many could not.
The rest of the cast and crew of Wichita St. have similar “Land of the Misfit Toys” stories that have all meshed together to form an amazing Final Four run. Senior Malcolm Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, has come up big with clutch shots and stellar play in the postseason. Freshman Ron Baker has not looked like a freshman. He’s hit 20 of his 23 free throw attempts, including nine-for-nine against Ohio St. in the Elite Eight, showing poise on the big stage. Another freshman, Fred Van Vleet, was a revelation against the Buckeyes. After averaging 4.3 points this season, he dropped 12 on Ohio St., including the dagger bouncing shot that will haunt Thad Matta’s dreams. Finally, sophomore Tekele Cotton, who made 0.6 threes per game all season, poured in 10 during the Shockers’ final four run.
This is a team led by head coach Gregg Marshall and is built on stingy defense and physical play. And it also helps that Wichita St. averaged nearly 10 threes per game against Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State
So let’s face it, this team is built for an NCAA tournament run. And after beating the top-ranked team in the country, a furious Cinderella from the rising Atlantic-10 and the champion of the best conference in the nation, they’ve shown they can play with anyone. That’s why when they’re up against Louisville, this team won’t be shy. Marshall has preached this whole tournament that his team belongs, and they’ve proven that.
If the No. 9 Shockers wind up winning the whole thing, they’ll be the lowest seed in history to win the NCAA tournament. Would that be Shocking? Maybe.
Then again, especially in this wild season, it may not be shocking after all.