ST. LOUIS – The Missouri Valley Conference extended a wonderful Arch Madness parting gift to the undefeated Wichita State Shockers on Sunday afternoon.
Seconds after they finished beating Indiana State 83-69, the players were handed T-shirts commemorating their Missouri Valley tournament championship. The shirts had a bracket on the back that said the Sycamores actually won the thing. Nobody noticed until the Shockers were wearing them.
One league’s gaffe is another man’s gold.
For a program that relishes bathing in the icy water of disrespect, this was perfect. Total domination of the conference ends with a printing mistake that denies the Shockers their first Valley tourney title in 27 years. The players were proudly cloaked in insult as they cut down the nets in the Scottrade Center.
“Hey, hey!” a gleeful Gregg Marshall said upon seeing the shirts. “Someone get a picture of this.”
They got pictures. And they will keep the shirts, too. The conference eventually will send a shipment with the correct bracket on the back, but these may remain the Shockers’ favorite souvenir from this three-day tour de force.
“We won,” point guard Fred Van Vleet said. “[The Sycamores] don’t get to wear the shirts today.”
As motivated masochists, the Shockers will wear the hairshirts of external doubt from now through Selection Sunday and into NCAA tournament play – which almost assuredly will begin in this same arena on March 21. From now until then they will hear an increasing chorus of criticism aimed at the Wichita State schedule (ranked 131st by Ken Pomeroy) and conference (ranked 11th). The power-conference snobs will be out in force, railing against the No. 1 NCAA seed that is assuredly heading Wichita’s way (many of them already are, and a high percentage of those hail from Lawrence, Kan.). Others will wonder whether the ensuing 12-day layoff without a game will leave the Shockers flat and rusty (didn’t happen last year). And, yeah, there is at least one guy who thinks that being the first undefeated team to enter the NCAAs since UNLV in 1991 is a potentially problematic burden.
All of it will be music to their rabbit ears, which detect slights the way Tiger Woods hears camera clicks during his backswing.
Marshall was asked Sunday whether he had a message for the skeptics who will be prowling Bracketville. Marshall said he did not. But then he doubled back a couple minutes later.
"I want to get back to you," he said to the reporter who asked the question. "I might have an answer. I’m going to go with [Wichita State center] Chadrack Lufile’s tweet about two weeks ago: ‘Wolves do not fret over the opinions of sheep.’ "
Then Gregg Marshall flashed a wolfishly predatory stare from the podium.
Thus the Shockers embark on their NCAA tourney journey as the most highly-regarded and highly-scrutinized team from outside the power-five conferences since Memphis in 2008. Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed last year but didn’t grab the nation’s imagination the way Wichita State has – and for good reason, as it turned out. The Shockers eliminated the Zags in the round of 32, on their way to a surprise Final Four as a No. 9 seed.
There will be no hiding behind a low seed this time around. No sneaking up on anyone. Marshall’s team will be the national talking point from now until they lose.
If they lose.
It will take a really good team playing really well to beat the Shockers. What they lack in résumé sizzle they make up for in eyeball-test substance. They perfectly embody the play-hard-smart-together ethos of great teams, and they augment those qualities with plenty of talent. There may be a couple of teams with better players than Wichita State, but the list is short – and the teams on it don’t always maximize their talent the way the Shockers do.
“They’re the best team in the country,” said Indiana State senior Jake Odum.
The Shockers are blessed with four go-to guys. On a day when their most prolific 3-point shooter, guard Ron Baker, went 0-for-6 outside the arc, the rest of the team went 9-for-16. That continued a torrid shooting weekend, with Wichita State making 28 3-pointers in 63 attempts (44.4 percent).
The two shooting stars Sunday were Tekele Cotton and Van Vleet, each of whom was 4-for-6 from 3-point range. Cotton was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player and forward Cleanthony Early is the team’s best talent, but it is Van Vleet who is the most indispensible Shocker.
When the game got close, and with Early struggling through a poor second half, Van Vleet showed why he was named the Missouri Valley Player of the Year. Indiana State battled back from a 15-point deficit to close within four points, and suddenly Van Vleet became Van Gogh. He produced a masterpiece over the final 13 minutes.
He scored 16 of Wichita State’s next 33 points, nailing four 3-pointers and driving for a pair of baskets. Content to be a facilitator when the situation calls for it, the sophomore is perfectly capable of taking over when needed.
“I had opportunities all game that I was passing up because I didn’t want to be overly aggressive and force the issue,” Van Vleet said. “But coming down the stretch, I just was a little bit more aggressive and took advantage of some opportunities I had.”
The opportunities for the Shockers grow larger from this point forward. And the noise surrounding this team will grow louder.
They are chasing immortality, the first 40-0 season ever. But they are also being chased by a horde of doubters who will be waiting to fire told-ya-so arrows at them if they fall short.
For a team with a perfect record and a permanent chip on the shoulder, those doubters are as welcome as the erroneous Arch Madness T-shirts they wore while cutting down the nets Sunday.