COMMENTARY | A jolt is coming for the Wichita State Shockers.
The men’s college basketball team has this season won 34 games and lost none. If they win their next six during the upcoming March Madness tournament, they will be national champions and become the first team ever to finish with 40 wins and no losses. Basketball historians would be talking about the 2013-14 Shockers in the same conversation with the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers that went 36-0 and won the title. Except the Shockers would have outdone even that phenomenal squad — by winning four more games.
But sadly, the joyride they’ve been on this season is coming to a hollow and haunting halt. Their wonderful story will drift like a helium balloon into the vast Kansas sky. When this happens, America will get bummed out. This nation adores stories of overachievement, overcoming doubters, and wild success.
Making this prediction brings me no joy. I always root for mid-major and lesser teams to beat perennial powerhouses such as Louisville, Kentucky and Duke. If Wichita State cuts down the nets on Monday night, April 7, in Arlington, Texas, I expect cry with the thoughts that this group of guys accomplished something marvelous and unprecedented. I will cry because I always dreamed of being on such a team but it didn’t pan out.
But there will only be tears of frustration. The players will begin to yearn about could have been. These feelings will never stop the rest of their lives.
Reasons for pessimism
There are several reasons why I think this.
It all starts with the coach, Gregg Marshall. While I love his intensity and work ethic and admire his achievements – he’s arguably the best coach in college basketball now — he has a personality that can easily irritate people, as reported in a recent profile in USAToday.com . Talking brashly without much humility, he comes across as cocky and insensitive. It’s clear he feels he came through the college ranks by paying his dues. He feels he’s earned his stature on his own and is unapologetic about it. In his 15 years he has a college basketball head coaching record of 367 wins and 153 losses. A winner of numerous honors and championships, this guy has vaulted himself into the coaching elite.
In recent months Marshall hurled some verbal shots publicly at top programs such as Michigan State, Duke, Louisville, and Kentucky, as reported in USAToday.com and Mlive.com . All the other coaches and players in the tournament know this. They will be extra motivated to beat him, to shut the man up. They will coach and play with more intensity and aggressiveness against his team than they would versus other teams. It’s human nature. You talk trash, speak proudly about yourself, and your opponents will want to ruin your spectacular season more so than if you remained quiet and showed humility.
Because they have a chance to become basketball immortals, in every game the Shockers play in this tournament they will feel non-stop pressure. In later rounds they will play better teams with more talent with more wherewithal to push them around. This will mentally tax Wichita State. Facing these stiff headwinds, they will not be able to win six straight games to win the national championship. In fact, I don’t believe they will make it to the Final Four.
Traditional powerhouses keep winning the big one
Second, Wichita State, which according to the Associated Press Top 25 Poll ranks second nationally behind Florida, won’t buck historical trends. For the past 28 years the powerhouse programs that are expected to win, have snatched the championship. You know their names: Louisville, Connecticut, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and their ilk. Because these teams win so often, the tournament is becoming less provocative, less watchable. He deluge of tournament commercials and TV time-outs are bordering on intolerably tedious.
The last time a non-powerhouse team, a Cinderella, won it all was Villanova 28 years ago, according to NCAA.com . Although better than a Cinderella team, Wichita State is not a typical national powerhouse. As the field of 68 starts competing on March 18, Americans will get teased into fantasizing that some off-the-national-radar college will win it all. This is much more exciting and pleasing to the soul because it reminds us that, in America, everybody has a chance to be great, to dethrone Big Boy. But the tournament keeps disappointing the masses. It would be awe-inspiring and refreshing for Wichita State to win it all. It would be exactly what American wants and needs to feel inspired and rejuvenated as the season of Spring emerges. But it won’t happen because it almost never does.
I recently studied on ESPN.go.com the team statistics of Wichita State. For a broader perspective, I also looked at a few other intriguing teams in the field –Louisville, Michigan State, Creighton, and Michigan. My goal was to see how the Shockers stack up nationally in individual and team statistics versus other tournament teams.
I found several areas of concern. First, the team does not have an offensive player that can dominate a game. The team’s highest scorer, Cleanthony Early, averages 15 points. Wichita State needs a guy who, when everything is going bad and a shot has to be made and everybody knows who is going to shoot it, he nails it anyway. Based on their statistics, I don’t think they have that guy.
They also don’t shoot a high enough field-goal percentage. The team’s top two scorers, Early and Ron Baker, each shoot 36 percent from beyond the 3-point line. To win the tourney, the top players need to shoot in the 45 percent rate or higher. Year after year, this long range shot turns out to be pivotal to winning March Madness games.
In a similar vein, Wichita State doesn’t score enough points per game. Their 75 points rank them a mediocre 66 th in the country; many other tournament teams have proven they can score a lot more. Their field goal percentage is a pedestrian 45 percent, 86 th in the country. And they are not great passers, only averaging 13.5 per game — a meager 110 th .
Louisville will make it to the Final Four again
This is tough to acknowledge – because I’m tired of the same high-profile teams winning this tournament — but the fifth-ranked Louisville (29 and 5) squad is another reason Wichita State will not win the national championship. Not only did the Cardinals beat the Shockers last year in the Final Four, if they play them again in this year’s tournament, Louisville will win again. Statistically, Louisville impresses across the aboard much more so than Wichita State. They rank second in the nation in overall team defense and second in steals per game with 10. They light up the scoreboard posting 81 per game and are ranked 12 th nationally. Guard Russ Smith leads them in scoring with 17 points per game. More importantly, he makes clutch, game-winning shots and can be unstoppable.
As formidable as they are offensively, defense is the reason Louisville will make it Texas. They will exhaust teams with their ferocious press, get plenty of steals and convert them into easy layups. For many years under coach Rick Pitino they have proven to be adept at pressing teams right out of the tournament. This year’s stats bear that out.
Louisville proved how strong they this past weekend by dominating in all three games of The American Tournament en route to the title. Other tournament teams, including Wichita State, should be taken aback at how they carved up this weekend’s opponents obliterating Rutgers 92-31 and then dominating Houston 94-65 and UConn 71-61. No team in the field of 68 is hotter and scarier than Louisville.
Michigan State will make the Final Four at least
Based on raw athletic talent, this year’s Michigan State team (25 and 8) ranks among the nation’s elite. Like Louisville, the 22 nd ranked Spartans often spoil the dreams of teams in this tournament with their defensive intensity and overall athleticism. They are so good this year across the board that they will definitely make the Final Four. Coach Tom Izzo has made a habit of doing so with six Final Four appearances.
The Spartans have two legitimate high scoring players in Gary Harris (17.5 per game) and Adreian Payne (16 per game). Both are superb athletes. The rest of the starting line-up is exceptionally quick. They make 47 percent from the field. They also pass the ball well, averaging 17 assists, ranking them sixth nationally. Izzo’s team plays its usual tough defense and is riding momentum by advancing to this weekend to the Big Ten championship game against Michigan.
Creighton will make the Suite 16 and then fade
As inspiring at it would be for Wichita State to win it all, it would be almost as compelling if 14 th -ranked Creighton (26 and 7) shocked the world by snatching the title. But, realistically, the Bluejays won’t sing that victory song. They will certainly win a few games carried by Doug McDermott, the nation’s leading scorer averaging 26 points per game. He converts 52 percent of his field goals, which is stellar considering how many he fires from long range. No matter who the Bluejays play, Creighton will score at least 25 points in each tournament game because he’s so skilled inside and outside. But a talented defensive team such as Louisville or Michigan State won’t allow him to go for 40 or more and his less-than-stellar supporting cast won’t be able to pull up the slack. As great as McDermott is – he has become 7 th on the all-time NCAA scoring list – the rest of his teammates do not overwhelm. They ranked 183 rd in rebounding with only get 34 per game.
On the positive side, they can shoot from long range; they rank second in three-point shots made with 309. They only turned the ball over 300 times this season, good for 13 th best in the country. They make 49 percent of their shots, ranked 7 th nationally. Although impressive, traditional powerhouses will defend these guys better than they’ve been all season. In the Elite Eight round their run will end before the nation would get to see McDermott light up the world in the national championship game. Prolific scorers like him are basketball’s most irresistible eye-candy. It would be sweet to see him cut down the nets but it won’t happen.
Michigan’s hot shooting will cool before the Final Four
There is not a player in the country I am more interested in watching in this tournament than Michigan guard Nik Stauskas. This guy may be the most overachieving, hardest-working player in the field. For his efforts he was recently named Big Ten Player of the Year, but it’s not because he’s anywhere close to the best athlete in the tournament.
Stauskas has a shot that when it leaves his hand you’re pretty sure it’s going in, and even if it doesn’t it looks awfully pure like a photo in a basketball textbook. What a stroke he has. He posted 17 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 81 percent from the foul line. All basketball fans who appreciate pure shooting artistry should hope eighth-ranked Michigan (25 and 7) goes to the national title to watch this guy shoot the basketball. But it won’t happen because his team has a big problem: They only get 32 rebounds per game, ranking them a paltry 297 th in the nation. If you can’t rebound in the tournament, you have no chance of cutting down the nets on that coveted Monday night in early April. They will lose in the Suite 16.
The melancholic and maddening truth is this: the usual boring things are going to happen during March Madness. The same old powerhouses will make it to the Final Four. I wish we could experience another Villanova or NC State amazing national title run. That’s what makes the tournament the best sporting event of the year. But this March Madness gig is losing its luster because that’s it’s not happening anymore.
This year I envision the following sad scenario: Michigan State and Louisville will advance to the Final Four and play each other. Louisville will win by pressing and stealing the ball in crucial situations. Tenth-ranked Kansas (24-9), another traditional powerhouse team that bores me, and seventh-ranked Duke (25-7) will square off in the other Final Four. Duke will win because Coach K is the deity of college basketball coaches having won four national titles. With his flair for calming his players and putting them in intense trances in big games, the Blue Devils will advance and beat Louisville in the national title. Coach K will figure out a scheme to neutralize that vaunted press.
Duke will win, America will be miffed
Besides Duke Nation and its cool Cameron Crazies, America will be miffed by all of this. I won’t watch the Final Four because it will be non-newsworthy and unpalatable. The tournament’s most entertaining players, meaning the best shooters – McDermott and Stauskas – will be gone. So what will be the point?
In his post-game press conference, Coach K will talk about how he leads with his heart, loves each and every one of his players, and that they won because they played the Duke way. At the post-game press conference he will explain that the number one reason his team won was because he was totally honest with them the entire season, sharing the good and the bad with them steadfastly and mercilessly.
The game’s best coach will reflect on how he feels having won his fifth national title. I won’t watch his press conference nor read any of the hype about Duke’s national championship. I will go to my room perturbed and wishing I didn’t care so viscerally about college basketball.
“Wichita State’s Greg Marshall Puts Teeth Into Coaching” – USA Today
“A Shocker shocker? Wichita State coach had snippy remark about Michigan State loss to Michigan” – Mlive.com