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Shockers rise by doing just that

December 06, 2006|Robyn Norwood

Wichita State's players didn't get the nickname "Shockers" for what they do on the court.

It comes from the days when young men in Kansas worked in the fields "shocking" wheat during harvesting and threshing time.

And though casual fans might be shocked to see Wichita State ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll -- highest in their state, by the way, two spots ahead of tradition-rich Kansas -- the Shockers have done plenty to earn it.

They already have defeated George Mason and Louisiana State, half of last season's Final Four.

They won at George Mason last month on the night the ultimate Cinderella team hung its Final Four banner in front of the largest crowd in Patriot Center history.

Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" must have sounded a little flat after Wichita State -- the opponent George Mason defeated to reach the Elite Eight last season -- spoiled the party with a 72-66 victory.

"It was special and kind of cool to be there," Wichita State Coach Mark Turgeon said. "I don't know if that will happen again in our lifetime, a non-BCS school going to the Final Four.

"I don't think college basketball is set up for non-BCS schools. I hope I'm wrong. I hope it's us, or somebody like us."

The Shockers' victory at LSU came when the Tigers were ranked No. 6. On Saturday, they made it two victories over top 25 teams when, after leading by 23, they held on to beat then-No. 15 Syracuse, 64-61, in front of almost 24,000 in the Carrier Dome.

"A very good team," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim called Wichita State.

This is the time of year when the Ratings Percentage Index rankings are notoriously skewed, but if you take teams simply on which opponents they've beaten and where, Butler and Wichita State as the current RPI leaders isn't as crazy as it seems.

In a season when the dizzying but inconsistent success of mid-major teams makes it difficult to know where to rank anybody, Wichita State stands out partly because not only has it won, it has won on the road. And not at neutral sites, either, in their opponents' own gyms.

"I couldn't get home games and I couldn't get neutral-site games," Turgeon said. "I just took road games."

It would be silly to predict a Final Four run or anything like it.

UCLA, North Carolina, Ohio State and Florida look like a pretty tough foursome.

But if Wichita State -- which reached the Final Four in 1965 -- made a deep NCAA run with its blend of defense, balanced scoring and success on the road, it wouldn't be entirely unfamiliar territory.

The Shockers have four starters back from last season's Sweet 16 team that upset Tennessee in the NCAA tournament -- Sean Ogirri, Kyle Wilson, P.J. Couisnard and Matt Braeuer.

Sixth-man Karon Bradley played in the 2003 Final Four for Marquette before transferring to Wichita State.

And Turgeon -- who at only 41 might be the coach at Kansas someday -- was a player on the 1986 Kansas team that went to the Final Four, then was part of Larry Brown's staff when Kansas won the 1988 NCAA title with Danny Manning, and was an assistant on Roy Williams' 1991 Final Four team.

Part of his heart is always with Kansas but not all of it.

"I think KU is really talented and I stayed up rooting for them the night they beat Florida," he said. "But I was going to be disappointed if we weren't ahead of them. If we lost to Oral Roberts and DePaul, we wouldn't be ranked in the top 50."

Fresh faces

It's as true in the Pacific 10 Conference as it is around the country: This appears to be an exceptional crop of freshmen.

The top three scorers in the Pac-10 -- and five of the top seven -- are freshmen, and 16 have started at least one game.

Arizona's Chase Budinger, the red-haired 6-foot-7 forward from Encinitas, Calif., who played at La Costa Canyon High and shared most valuable player honors with Kevin Durant in the McDonald's High School All-American game, looks to be the best of the bunch.

He scored 32 points against Northern Arizona in his second game, and his 19.8-point average is second in the league only to the 21.8-point average of 5-6 Oregon guard Tajuan Porter, whose scoring has cooled recently. California forward Ryan Anderson is third with an 18.3 average.

In a come-from-behind victory against Illinois on Saturday, Budinger had 22 points, eight rebounds, shot 50% from field, made two of six three-pointers and eight of 10 free throws, and had three assists.

"He's so smooth," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said. "We thought we did a good job on him and he got 20."

Porter, dismissed by many because of his size, and Anderson are less heralded than many of the other Pac-10 freshmen.

"With Ryan, people ask if we think anybody missed the boat," Cal Coach Ben Braun said. "All I can tell you is we saw a solid player with good fundamentals who is good around the basket and stepping away, and is very coachable."

Among others making their marks: Quincy Pondexter and 7-footer Spencer Hawes at Washington, Christian Polk at Arizona State, and 21-year-old freshman Taj Gibson at USC.

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