Wichita State Makes History on its Way to the NCAA TournamentPosted by Adam Stillman on March 9th, 2014
Twenty-three years ago. That’s the last time a college basketball team entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Until now. The Wichita State Shockers completed their inexorable march toward regular season perfection with an 83-69 victory against Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game Sunday afternoon at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Thirty-four times opponents attempted to end Wichita State’s bid for perfection, and 34 times they failed. The 1990-91 UNLV team that entered the NCAA Tournament at 30-0 will no longer be the answer to a modern-day trivia question. That honor now belongs to Wichita State. “I wouldn’t say it was a celebration or a relief, but we understand what we accomplished is something special,” Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said. “At the same time we still have business to take care of.” Added Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet: “We’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to embrace it and appreciate it. This stuff doesn’t happen.”
Let’s forget the omnipresent strength-of-schedule argument surrounding the Shockers. Let’s forget the detractors who won’t be satisfied until Wichita State proves itself in the Big Dance. Let’s celebrate the accomplishment for what it is. Wichita State is just the second team in history to begin the season with 34 straight wins. The other? That UNLV squad that reached the Final Four at 34-0 before falling to Duke. This is one of the biggest stories in the history of college basketball. The Shockers pulled off a feat that’s only been done once before. And should they — with their inevitable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — be able to avoid the first #16 over #1 upset in Big Dance history, Wichita State would stand alone as the only team to start a college basketball season with 35 consecutive victories. “It’s got to be [one of the greatest stories in college basketball history],” Van Vleet said. “You’re talking about 34 up, 34 down. I don’t care who you’re playing or where you’re at or where you’re from, 34-0 is 34-0.”
The focus for now should be on the unblemished regular season. You don’t just luck into winning 34 games in a row, regardless of the quality of competition. The Shockers were just about everybody’s “Super Bowl” game this season, and Wichita State never stumbled. For a group of kids aged 18-22, that’s remarkable. They have so many other things to worry about — school, girls, etc. — and yet they never crumbled under the pressure of their unbeaten record. “I just want to thank these guys for an incredible run thus far,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said.
The final step in the pursuit of a perfect regular season didn’t come easy. Despite a 44-29 Wichita State advantage early in the second half, Indiana State crept within 47-43. But Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton delivered consecutive and timely three-pointers to put the Shockers up by 10. The Sycamores once again responded, getting back within 55-50. Wichita State once again had the answer, scoring the next 13 points to take control and Indiana State never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Van Vleet painted a masterpiece Sunday, scoring 22 points, dishing out five assists and grabbing five rebounds as Wichita State won its first conference tournament title since 1987. Cotton, the tournament’s most outstanding player, added 20 points while hitting four threes. Early and Darius Carter both added 10 points for the Shockers. Justin Gant and Manny Arop both scored 18 points to lead Indiana State.
Fair or not, Wichita State will ultimately be judged by what it does over the next several weeks. Can the Shockers win six more games and finish with a perfect 40-0 mark? They very well could, but they also could lose in the second round. That’s the fickle nature of the NCAA Tournament. But early exit or national championship, the 2013-14 version of the Wichita State Shockers will go down as one of the best stories in college basketball history. It’s been 23 years since a team has stood unbeaten at Selection Sunday. Given the current college basketball landscape, it could be at least another 23 until we see it again. “The Big Dance, it’s for all the marbles,” Van Vleet said. “As competitors we look forward to that. We’re just happy to get this done first.”
Added Marshall: “Just unbelievable, special, extraordinary. It’s just awesome to coach these guys. If you’ve put your life’s work into coaching, which I have, and to be able to coach the quality of individual that I’m coaching, to do it the right way. Not just the fact that they win, but the way they go about their daily work on the campus, in the community, they’re just fine young gentleman. They also happen to be extraordinarily talented and they’re taking us on some crazy magic carpet ride. So it’s really cool.”
Well, Matt Norlander, time to get those bunny ears ready.