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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

This time, Wichita State has the major target on its back

The Shockers were a feel-good story last season as a No. 9 seed that reached the Final Four. Now at 34-0, Wichita State is the hunted and faces a tough road to a title.

March 19, 2014|Chris Dufresne
  • Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall discusses strategy with Tekele Cotton against Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game.
Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall discusses strategy with Tekele Cotton… (Bill Boyce / Associated…)

It takes years to climb the mid-major success ladder and minutes for it to be pulled out from under you.

Last year, Gonzaga finally got to the top rung when it entered the NCAA tournament as the top-ranked team in the nation.

The Bulldogs rolled into the Salt Lake City sub-regional with legitimate national title aspirations, even though skeptics thought Gonzaga was overrated and didn't play in a tough enough conference to warrant all the fuss.

The critics were only emboldened after Gonzaga was sent home on the first weekend by a scrappy, hungry, No. 9-seeded team with something to prove.

That team was Wichita State.

So here we are, a year later, with a case of pick-and-role reversal.

Wichita State now wears the target with a 34-0 record, No. 2 national ranking and as the No. 1-seeded team in the Midwest Regional. And the Shockers are hearing the same things Gonzaga heard last March.

Why do we love schools during the struggle but not as much once they get there?

"Last year, we were the fuzzy, warm story," Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall said in a telephone interview. "This year, it's 'When are you going to lose? When are you going to play somebody?' The bottom line is, none of that matters: We've got to play."

Marshall's team got ramrodded into the nastiest bracket in the tournament. The Shockers, on their way to a national title, might have to defeat Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Arizona and Michigan State.

Could it be that committee members weren't buying Wichita State either, and have set the Shockers up to fail?

It's ridiculous that the Shockers, just to get out of the St. Louis sub-regional, might have to defeat Kentucky, which was ranked No. 1 before this season.

Virginia, allegedly the worst No. 1-seeded team in the field, gets the 8-9 winner between Memphis and George Washington.

The pairings hadn't been finalized when Marshall spoke for this story last week, days after his team capped a perfect regular season by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

The NCAA bracket selections suggest the Shockers' historic season isn't getting the credit it deserves.

"I think in our society there is a 'stay in your lane' type mentality," Marshall said. "Maybe we are, in some peoples' eyes, getting out of our lane. Becoming more than we should. Maybe they don't like that."

Wichita State is the first team since Nevada Las Vegas in 1991 to enter the NCAA tournament without a defeat. The Runnin' Rebels ended up losing a national semifinal to Duke.

In 1979, Larry Bird-led Indiana State made it undefeated to the title game before that epic loss to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.

Were people ripping mid-major Indiana State then?

Wichita State has some nerve, in today's age, winning all the games on its schedule.

How could anyone think the Shockers are comparable to any special team that came before them?

If Wichita State wins six games, it will finish 40-0 and become the first undefeated team to win the NCAA title since Indiana in 1976.

But don't start comparing the Shockers to any of those misty memories.

Wichita State isn't.

"We certainly don't have Larry Bird on our team," Marshall said. "And I don't think we have four NBA guys like UNLV did. But college basketball is different now, with the one and dones. We just play the game the way we think it should be played. We value each possession and defend as hard as we can."

There's no use now mentioning Wichita State's "suspect" No. 98-rated schedule was partially the result of former Missouri Valley power Creighton leaving for the Big East Conference.

Wichita State actually did try to schedule better teams, but it was unwilling to be contractually treated like Savannah State playing at Florida State in football — without a snowball's chance of a return game.

It drives Marshall crazy that his team, which hasn't lost since last year's Final Four, is still called a "mid-major."

Marshall hates that term so much he'd almost rather talk about scheduling.

"It's derogatory," Marshall said. "I've never understood 'mid-major.' In football, you don't call Boise State a mid-major."

Marshall added: "We use private airplanes for travel every time we leave the ground. We're talking about playing in front of packed houses. That doesn't sound like a mid-major."

Wichita State defeated three teams that made the NCAA field — St. Louis, Brigham Young and Tennessee.

Oh yeah, the Shockers also won at Alabama.

The bottom line is: College basketball isn't football, where schedule strength in the Bowl Championship Series era was important because there was no postseason tournament. With the right schedule misses and a loquacious head coach, you could darn near lobby your way to national title position.

This is different because Wichita State will rise or fall on its own in the NCAA tournament.

The Shockers actually didn't get away with anything this season — the selection committee saw to that.

Years after his previously undefeated UNLV team lost to Duke in that national semifinal, Rebels Coach Jerry Tarkanian said in hindsight he wished his team had lost a game before the NCAA tournament.

It's too late now for Wichita State.

"We're not running from it," Marshall said of the aura of being unbeaten. "We're not afraid of it. We're just doing the best we can."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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