Appreciating Near-Perfection in an Instant Classic Between Kentucky and Wichita State

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 24th, 2014

There were a number of storylines entering Sunday’s Kentucky vs. Wichita State game about 1-and-dones, so-called “mid-majors,” David vs. Goliath, and of course, quests for undefeated seasons. Neither the Wildcats nor the Shockers would ultimately reach the 40-0 prize this season, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they would not come exceptionally close to perfection.

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

It’s no secret that Kentucky struggled this season, deteriorating into a poor defensive squad that often appeared lost on offense. When the Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina near the end of the regular season, it seemed as if the team was spiraling out of control. Among most everybody who follows the program, it appeared highly unlikely that John Calipari’s team had the guts and drive to participate in the best game of the season, and one of the best postseason games in years. But there they were yesterday, standing tall, after winning a 78-76 thriller over Wichita State.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 78, #1 Wichita State 76

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 23rd, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Cleanthony Early was outstanding for the Shockers. (AP)

Cleanthony Early scored 31 points in a losing effort. (AP)

  1. It was the best game of the year. Kentucky and Wichita State played an absolute classic. Not only was it the best NCAA Tournament game this season, it will likely stay that way. And it easily topped any regular season game simply because all that was on the line. The Wildcats and Shockers threw punch after punch, made run and after run, until Fred Van Vleet’s three clanked off the rim at the buzzer. It’s unfortunate that one of these teams had to lose. This game was fitting of a national championship game rather than a round of 32 game, and it may have been the best round of 32 game in the history of the Big Dance.
  2. Wichita State belongs among the nation’s elite. The Shockers were counted out all year long. It seemed like half the nation thought they weren’t good enough. Well, the detractors need to close their mouths. I don’t care that they were the first #1 seed to lose. They played a magnificent basketball game they certainly could have won, and it’s a real shame the Shockers will be going home early. A brilliant season that started with 35 straight wins ended in disappointment. But that shouldn’t take anything away from what the Shockers accomplished this year. Wichita State can play with anybody.
  3. Kentucky played like 40-0 Kentucky. Remember before the season began when there was all that conversation about preseason #1 Kentucky going 40-0? Well, the Wildcats finally played like the team they were expected to be on Sunday afternoon. They were focused, they competed unbelievably hard for 40 minutes, they defended, and they hit shots. The heralded freshman class lived up to its preseason billing. They were absolutely terrific in scoring 68 of Kentucky’s points. From Julius Randle to the Harrison twins to James Young, they were magnificent — if, and it’s big if, but if Kentucky can continue to play at this level, there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, as national champions two weeks from now.

Star of the Game: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. Yes, even in a losing effort. The senior forward poured in a game-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and 3-of-3 from the free-throw line. Early pulled down seven rebounds, didn’t commit a turnover, and recorded a steal and a block. Early hit big shot after big shot in the second half, and threw down a monster posterizing dunk in the opening half. The only thing he did wrong was a missed layup with three minutes remaining in the tight contest that would have given Wichita State a three-point lead.

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region Analysis

Posted by Walker Carey on March 17th, 2014

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Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), Midwest (11:00 AM), South (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCmwregion).

You should also check out our upcoming RTC Podblast with Walker breaking down the Midwest Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.

Midwest Region

Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Favorite: #4 Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC). Not to take anything away from the fantastic seasons completed by #1 seed Wichita State, #2 seed Michigan and #3 seed Duke, but Louisville is one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals were likely dropped to a #4 seed due to their weak non-conference schedule and the fact that some of their wins in AAC play were over vastly inferior competition. However, when you have the talent and winning experience that Louisville possesses, seeding does not really matter all that much. Guard Russ Smith is one the nation’s elite scorers and he has shown throughout his collegiate career that he can go off for a monster night in any game against any team. Forward Montrezl Harrell has taken a huge step forward during his sophomore season and his 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game give the Cards an outstanding post presence. Toss in the fact that Louisville’s defense only allows 61 points per game and averages 10.1 steals per game and it should be clear why Rick Pitino’s squad is the favorite to return to the Final Four to defend its national title.

Should They Falter: #1 Wichita State (34-0, 18-0 MVC). If favorite Louisville is to stumble before reaching the Final Four, the undefeated Shockers are the team that is most equipped to do the job. While Wichita State has caught a ton of unnecessary criticism for its “easy” schedule, it is impossible to discount the fact that the team completed the nearly impossible task of finishing the regular season and conference tournament with an unscathed record. Throughout all the monotonous discussion about Wichita State’s merit as a top seed, it was often forgotten that Gregg Marshall’s squad has a solid nucleus that was on the team that advanced to the Final Four last April. Guards Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton, along with forward Cleanthony Early, played big minutes for the team last season and all four have experienced even more success in greater roles this season. Not only is Wichita State talented enough to return to the Final Four, it is also talented enough to cut down the nets at Cowboys Stadium on the first Monday in April.

Grossly Overseeded: #6 Massachusetts (24-8, 10-6 A-10). Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen had a fine season, but their résumé does not suggest that they were worthy of a #6 seed. After winning 16 of its first 17 games, Massachusetts went 8-7 over its final 15. Those seven losses included setbacks to non-Tournament teams Richmond, Saint Bonaventure and George Mason. The Minutemen were a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic 10 team as a result, and that was evident by the fact that they were the #6 seed in their conference tournament. What really makes the placement here a headscratcher is that George Washington and Saint Joseph’s finished ahead of them in the conference and they were given a #8 and a #10 seed, respectively.

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Bracket Prep: Coastal Carolina, Wichita State, Mercer

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 10th, 2014

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As we move through Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. Three more teams — one well known, the other two less so — punched their tickets on Sunday. Here’s what you need to know about the most recent bid winners.

Coastal Carolina

Cliff Ellis And Coastal Carolina Are Your Big South Champions -- Finally. Welcome To The Big Dance Chanticleers!

Cliff Ellis And Coastal Carolina Are Your Big South Champions — Finally. Welcome To The Big Dance Chanticleers!

  • Big South Champion (21-12, 14-5)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #228/#226/#239
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = -1.3
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16 (First Four)

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Seven Big South teams won 10 conference games this season, but in the end, it was Coastal Carolina who emerged from the pack to win the Big South Tournament. Former Auburn and Clemson head man Cliff Ellis is now in his seventh season at Coastal, and his first Tournament appearance with the Chanticleers has to feel long overdue. This was the fifth consecutive season that CCU had won more games than they lost in conference play, and the program posted 28 wins in both 2010 and 2011 only to be upset in the conference tournament final in each season. No Championship Week heartbreak for Ellis’ team this season, however, as the Chanticleers are dancing for the first time in over two decades.
  2. The Chanticleers will be one of the better defensive teams on the lower seed lines. Ellis’ bunch was the best defensive team in the Big South all season long, and they put the clamps on Winthrop Sunday, forcing the nation’s 14th-best three-point shooting outfit into an 8-of-26 effort from behind the arc. They also compete on the boards – an effort spearheaded by 6’10” senior El Hadji Ndieguene (10.1% OR, 18.5% DR). Defense and rebounding are often major weaknesses for Cinderella hopefuls, but that will not be the case with Coastal Carolina. Read the rest of this entry »
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Wichita State’s Bid For Perfection Runs Into a Valley Scoring Star

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 15th, 2014

There’s been only one story to (consistently) grab national headlines out of the Missouri Valley this season, and it’s been a big one. You may have heard that Wichita State (currently 26-0) is trying to wrap up the first undefeated regular season since St. Joseph’s ran the table back in 2003-04. So it’s understandable that any other Valley storylines haven’t had a chance to reach national consciousness, short of Barry Hinson wanting his wife to play power forward for his team. But the Shockers’ bid for perfection runs into a Valley storyline on Saturday that needs an additional spotlight: Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, one of the best scorers you’ve probably never heard of.

D.J. Balentine is likely the best scorer Wichita State's elite defense will face all season (rantsports.com).

D.J. Balentine is likely the best scorer Wichita State’s elite defense will face all season (rantsports.com).

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you haven’t. The Purple Aces (11-14, 4-9 MVC) are near the bottom of the Valley and nowhere near any kind of postseason bid. You may, however, be hearing Balentine’s name more often over the next few years. Someone will need to assume Billy Baron’s role as the chic, mid-major scoring star, and it could very well be the Evansville sophomore. Balentine is sixth in the country in points per game (23.6) and is coming off a 38-point performance against Illinois State on Wednesday night. He dropped 43 on Northern Iowa earlier this season, and hasn’t wilted against the upper echelon of the Valley, scoring 23 against Indiana State and 26 in his first game against the Shockers. There’s no question the sophomore gets a more-than-healthy heaping of shots (15 per game), but his offensive game is dangerous because of its balance. Balentine gets to the line over eight times per game and is shooting 86 percent once he gets there. He’s also beaten teams from deep, taking 35.3 percent of his shots from three and knocking down over 40 percent of those. He’s also got the seventh best assist rate in the Valley, despite being the definition of a high-volume shooter.

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Three Thoughts as Wichita State Stays Perfect

Posted by Walker Carey on February 6th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Wednesday’s game between Wichita State and Indiana State in Terre Haute.

Wichita State has been one of the best stories of college basketball this season, as the Shockers entered Wednesday evening with a perfect 23-0 record. Gregg Marshall’s squad has been so successful this season in large part because of its veteran and winning experience. Many of the key contributors from last season’s Final Four team are back and that has laid the groundwork for this team’s tremendous start. Since Missouri Valley play began last month, members of the esteemed college basketball media picked out Wichita State’s road trips this week at Indiana State and Saturday night at Northern Iowa as the likeliest stretch for the Shockers to pick up their first setback. Now through one game of the pair, the Shockers remain unbeaten. Despite a raucous environment in Terre Haute clamoring for a victory, Wichita State fought off a pesky Indiana State team and emerged with a 65-58 victory. The following are three thoughts from Wednesday night’s action.

Wichita Survived Its Trip to Terre Haute Last Night

Wichita Survived Its Trip to Terre Haute Last Night

  1. Indiana State Gave The Shockers Quite The Battle. When Indiana State coach Greg Lansing called a timeout with 1:22 left to play, it was his team’s ball and the Sycamores’ deficit was just two. With the home crowd decidedly and loudly in their favor, it appeared as if this Valley battle was headed to a thrilling finish. Wichita State, however, had other plans, as it forced a key defensive stop, utilized a critical three-point play from forward Cleanthony Early, and made its free throws to key a 7-2 finishing run. Nothing came easy for the Shockers on this night, as they had to combat an explosive offensive Indiana State effort in the first half and a smothering defensive effort in the second. Wichita State was ultimately victorious to move its overall record to 24-0 and 11-0 in the MVC, but it must be noted that win number 24 came with a battle. Read the rest of this entry »
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Wichita State Might Have the Necessary Tools to Reach Perfection

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 17th, 2014

“Play angry” became Wichita State’s motto on its fantastic run to last year’s Final Four. The motto has stuck this year and been a part of the longest winning streak and best start in school history. But last Saturday night the Shockers’ motto was more “play with fire” than anything else, as they survived an 18-point halftime deficit and raucous road atmosphere against Missouri State to stay unbeaten. Playing with fire is exactly what Wichita State will continue to do as the team attempts to post the first undefeated regular season since St. Joseph’s turned the trick in 2003-04. Wichita State passed its next test with a dominant home win over Bradley on Tuesday night, but not every game will be in the friendly confines of Koch Arena and against a team that came in having lost nine of 10. It’s not that the Shockers aren’t good enough to pull off a perfect regular season, but two axioms of the often wacky and unpredictable world of college basketball are: a) that it’s hard as hell to play on the road, and b) it sure isn’t easy to win them all. Last Saturday’s win in Springfield illustrated why a perfect season, even in a down conference, is so hard to achieve; but it also showed that Gregg Marshall’s Shockers could just have what it takes to make it happen.

Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker bottled up Missouri State in the second half of their overtime win (Wichita Eagle, www.kansas.com).

Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker bottled up Missouri State in the second half of their overtime win. (Wichita Eagle, www.kansas.com).

The recipe for the upset was in full swing against Wichita State last Saturday: a home team red-hot from the three-point line in front of a rabid crowd. The undefeated season talk had already slowly begun to gain steam, but this was the type of game that many predicted would prevent it from happening. Wichita State will, after all, be the the Super Bowl game for every Missouri Valley team this season. Yet the perfect record was still alive when the Shockers tipped off against Bradley, and in battling back against Missouri State, they showed that even if they run into a similar situation against Indiana State in Terre Haute or Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls (or anywhere else, for that matter), they have shown the ability to keep sneaking out road wins.

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How Alabama and Florida Can Win Difficult Tuesday Tests

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 17th, 2013

The SEC has two important games tipping off at 8:00 PM CST tonight, as Florida takes on Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic in New York and Alabama hosts unbeaten Wichita State in Tuscaloosa. Momentum is building for the Gators after a November full of injuries and suspensions. Highly-touted freshman Chris Walker enrolled in class last weekend, only a few days after Florida knocked off Kansas in Gainesville. Alabama, on the other hand, stands at the precipice. The Tide are only a game over .500, and hard-fought losses to Oklahoma, Duke and Drexel will only be seen as losses come March. A win over a Shockers team that looks primed for another deep run in the NCAA Tournament would be a giant boost heading into conference place. Here’s what each team faces this evening, and what they will need to do to come away with a win.

Memphis vs. Florida, New York, NY

Patric Young should be able to feast on the glass against a small Memphis team.

Patric Young should be able to feast on the glass against a small Memphis team.

What Memphis does best: Active hands. Memphis has created havoc with its perimeter-oriented lineups. The Tigers have four high-quality guards, and they’ve done a good job creating turnovers this season. Joe JacksonMichael DixonGeron Johnson and Chris Crawford each average over 1.4 steals per game, and the team itself is 14th in the nation at forcing miscues (23.3% of possessions). But their most effective configuration has been when big men Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols are paired with three of the guards, allowing Memphis to be more aggressive on the perimeter with the knowledge that the rim is protected underneath.

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Wichita State Making Another Run at the Final Four Not Seem So Surprising

Posted by Adam Stillman on December 4th, 2013

Wichita State shocked the nation last March, as Gregg Marshall and the ninth-seeded Shockers stormed their way to the Final Four out of the West Region before finally capitulating to eventual national champion Louisville. Well, Wichita State isn’t flying under anybody’s radar this season. The Shockers entered the 2013-14 campaign ranked #16 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls. They now sit at #11 and #10 respectively in those rankings after an 8-0 start that includes a CBE Hall of Fame Classic title and a strong road win at Saint Louis. As of Tuesday night, Wichita State boasts a #9 ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, thanks to a 22nd-ranked offense (113.8 points per 100 possessions) and a 16th-ranked defense (allowing just 93 points per 100 possessions).

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Wichita State, who won the CBE Classic last week, continues to roll on.

Wichita State is undoubtedly the favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference this season, and let’s be honest, it won’t need to worry about sitting on the at-large bubble come Selection Sunday. But without a plethora of additional marquee non-conference match-ups on the docket, it’s best for the Shockers to take care of business with an eye on a higher seed this March. The darlings from the MVC have acquitted themselves well so far, as Marshall’s group has a pair of nice victories it will be able to hang its hat on regardless of what happens in conference play.

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Wichita State Solidifies Its Identity in CBE Championship Run

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 27th, 2013

Brian Goodman is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from last night’s CBE Championship game between Wichita State and BYU.

Some of Wichita State’s biggest questions entering the season surrounded the players who hadn’t yet spent a lot of time in Gregg Marshall‘s program. After the Shockers’ Final Four run, the secret was out about Cleanthony Early‘s legitimacy as an NBA prospect, but how would Ron Baker transition from a role player into a full-time wing? Was Fred VanVleet ready to shoulder a heavier workload, too? How quickly would transfers Nick Wiggins and Darius Carter pick things up? For a team returning as much talent as the Shockers retained, there were still plenty of unknowns, but three weeks into the season, we have a much clearer picture after they took down DePaul and BYU in this week’s CBE Classic.

Wichita State captured a heard-earned banner Tuesday night in Kansas City.

Wichita State captured a hard-earned banner Tuesday night in Kansas City.

Wichita State is a team that can win playing any style, not much unlike last year’s group. They were unstoppable on Monday against the Blue Demons, capitalizing on nearly every mistake Oliver Purnell’s team made (and there were a lot of them) en route to a 90-72 win. But it was a much different story Tuesday night against the Cougars, a team that prides itself on an uptempo pace and sweet shooting. The match-up began exactly the way BYU wanted. The Cougars pushed out to a 21-8 lead on the hot hand of Matt Carlino while Wichita State clanked 13 of its first 15 shots from the floor. Nothing was easy for them in the early going; even one of the Cougars’ weakest points, rebounding, showed surprising life. “We weren’t great on the glass. It seemed like 10 times we had the ball with one hand or didn’t secure it the way we should,” Marshall said after the game.

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Wichita Still Undefeated But With Kinks to Work Out as the Hunted

Posted by Eli Linton on November 21st, 2013

Eli Linton is a RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Wednesday night’s game between Wichita State and Tulsa in Tulsa. 

While the search continues for the mid-majors that have the talent and chemistry to emerge as this year’s Wichita State, the actual Wichita State is looking to build on its Final Four success and reach the next level of sustained excellence, much like Gonzaga and Butler from recent years. On Wednesday night in Tulsa, the Shockers improved to 5-0 after a convincing 77-54 win over the home town university. But a key trend is noticeable — the Shockers have struggled to establish a rhythm in any of those wins until the second half, and they have looked very beatable along the way. For nearly the entire game against Tulsa, they didn’t even remotely look worthy of their #14 national ranking.

Fred VanVleet and the Shockers are feeling what it is like to get everyone's best shot. (USA TODAY Sports)

Fred VanVleet and the Shockers are feeling what it is like to get everyone’s best shot. (USA TODAY Sports)

Gregg Marshall alluded to the fact that this road game would be the first big test of the year and he was right. The Shockers looked sluggish and a little sloppy right out of the gate as they only managed eight points in the first five minutes of play. Tulsa was clearly outmatched in talent, but they were aggressive and gained confidence as the game wore on. The Shockers couldn’t figure out the Hurricane’s zone defense in the first half, and their own full-court press was ineffective, leading to some easy buckets for the home team. The game was tied at the half, but it wasn’t until nine minutes left in the game did the Shockers finally gain the lead for good and take momentum by forcing Tulsa into some turnovers and knocking down some three-pointers. The only time the Shockers showed flashes of that Final Four team came with 5:30 to go when Tulsa made one last surge to cut the lead to 63-53, but threes by Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, a dunk, and a steal on four straight possessions sealed the game and emptied the seats. It lasted just two minutes, but it was the only time the Shockers were in complete control. VanVleet and Baker were outstanding, both scoring 21 points each on a combined 14-of-23 shooting.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 04.05.13 Edition

Posted by WCarey on April 5th, 2013

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The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.

Michigan

  • Michigan point guard Trey Burke‘s postseason award tour continued Friday when he was named as the winner of the Wooden Award.
  • Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. writes on his shoes before every game to honor friends and family who have passed away.
  • Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas entered Sunday’s Elite Eight game against Florida in a tough shooting slump – he was just 2-of-16 from deep in his last four games – but the freshman found his stroke in the team’s victory over the Gators, finishing 6-of-6 from deep. With Stauskas in a groove from the three-point line, Michigan’s offense has yet another dimension entering Saturday’s game against Syracuse.
  • Throughout his 35-year coaching career, Michigan coach John Beilein has been quite meticulous in his game preparation and that has not changed this season, as the veteran coach is still a stickler for all the details.
  • Michigan senior captain Josh Bartelstein has not made much of an impact for the Wolverines on the court, but his leadership off the court has been quite significant for the youthful squad.

Syracuse

Louisville
  • Louisville coach Rick Pitino is expected to be selected for enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The official announcement will come Monday at 11 A.M.
  • Is there a bit of the Big East in the way Wichita State plays defense? Louisville coach Rick Pitino thinks so. He described the Shockers defense, as “Marquette on steroids.”
  • Louisville sophomore forward Wayne Blackshear was named the recipient of the Elite 89 Award for the 2013 Final Four. The Elite 89 Award is presented to the player with the highest-cumulative grade point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s championships.
  • Former Louisville assistant coach Ralph Willard will be collecting a dinner from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino in the future, as Pitino once wagered a meal with Willard that dynamic guard Russ Smith will never be a prime time player for Louisville.
  • Louisville swingman Luke Hancock transferred to the program from George Mason after Jim Larranaga was hired by Miami in 2011. Hancock’s college career was almost entirely different, as Larranaga almost passed on offering a scholarship to him.

Wichita State

  • In the current culture of conference realignment in collegiate athletics, Wichita State has remained the rock of the Missouri Valley Conference.
  • Before arriving in Wichita, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall had a very successful tenure as the head coach at Winthrop. Marshall’s success at Winthrop led to him getting the Wichita State job and the rest has been history.
  • Rob Dauster of NBC’s CollegeBasketballTalk writes that Wichita State will benefit from the absence of Louisville guard Kevin Ware. With Ware sidelined, Louisville will have to turn to seldom-used walk-on Tim Henderson to play a much bigger role in Saturday’s game.
  • Wichita State forward Carl Hall has overcome a heart problem, known as neurocardiogenic syncope, to become a standout on the Shockers’ run to the Final Four.
  • Wichita State guard Ron Baker is from the small town of Scott City, Kansas. While Baker is still a small-town kid, his impact on the Shockers during their tournament run has been quite large.
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