Final Four appearance one year ago. Check. No. 2 national ranking. Check. Undefeated regular season. Check. The resume just keeps getting longer and longer for the aptly named Shockers. As they roll through the post season with relative ease, Wichita State shockingly still carries with them a perfect record. They now join the likes of the ’76 Hoosiers and ’57 Tar Heels with at least 32 straight victories against zero losses, already surpassing a host of 30-win UCLA championship teams.
What makes this seemingly average, run of the mill, Midwestern team so dominant? There are actually quite a few things. To start things off, the Shockers do not have a bona fide superstar on their team, but the players share the scoring and defending load extremely well. With the core group pretty much having played together for the past two seasons, they also play a brand of team basketball that is not seen very much in Division I basketball anymore. Wichita State’s top four scorers, Senior Forward Cleanthony Early, Sophomore Guard Ron Baker, Sophomore Guard Fred VonVleet, and Junior Guard Tekele Cotton, all average double figures in points per game as they evenly spread both playing time and scoring opportunities around.
Shockers Coach Greg Marshall has instilled the team concept in Wichita State since taking over the program back in 2007. This shared responsibility, shared reward approach worked perfectly in the Missouri Valley Conference, a mid-major that routinely ranked as high as No. 6 in terms of conference RPI before being raided by the so-called power conferences during the last few years of conference realignment. Marshall’s philosophy has affected how his players view the game and how they play it.
“They’re pretty talented and they play the game the right away,” Marshall said. “They play at both ends and they’re tough. They trust each other on every possession. They’re a really good group and a really good basketball team.”
The question is whether or not Wichita State is good enough to shock the nation and take their perfect record all the way to the national championship. Detractors of the reigning Missouri Valley Champs point to their schedule as their biggest downfall. The only ranked opponent that the Shockers have played all season is the No. 10 St. Louis Billikens, who they beat by five in St. Louis. Even with this disparity,however, the fact remains that Wichita State has an RPI of 6, and they continue to bring it every game, without having a single letdown. Fans, analysts and commentators dog their schedule, but all the Shockers can do is play the team that appears on it.
“It’s humorous. You can’t please everyone all the time and it’s really just the world that we live in, ” Marshall said, “But those detractors out there, they only fuel our fire. We appreciate the detractors for that very reason.”
The detractors are one of the reasons that Wichita State has developed the slogan “Play Angry.” It is a mantra that both the Shockers players and fans have gravitated towards since former NBA players Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr spoke to the team about playing every single game with a certain level of pride as well as respect for the opposing team.
Despite their seemingly “easy” schedule this season, Wichita State really is battle tested. This year’s team is almost a carbon copy of the squad that had taken a No. 9 seed all the way to the Final Four. That squad played the likes of Pittsburgh, top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State before finally falling to Louisville in the Final Four. Maybe it will not be quite so shocking, then, if Wichita State does end the season with a perfect record. After all, their players all have a wild year of added experience to augment a team that has already navigated through the tournament gauntlet.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika