Men's basketball: Shockers don’t believe in anger management
Carl Hall, above, and fellow forward Cleanthony Early give Wichita State a strong presence inside.
LOS ANGELES — Those are sneakers, not slippers, on the feet of the Wichita State Shockers. Don’t bother cloaking them with Cinderella references.
Yes, the mid-major Shockers are a No. 9 seed playing in their first NCAA Tournament regional final today in 32 years. Yes, Wichita State finished in second place in the Missouri Valley Conference — and lost to last-place Southern Illinois — before being awarded an at-large NCAA bid.
And the school with the third-highest enrollment in the state of Kansas is matched today against behemoth Ohio State, which is one victory shy of a second consecutive trip to the Final Four, and third such appearance since 2007.
The Shockers (29-8) understand the temptation to advertise them as The Little Team That Could even though a win today would set their school record for victories in a season and put them in the Final Four for the first time since 1965. Wichita State, with players from eight states and three countries, doesn’t view itself as a party crasher in today’s West Region final at the Staples Center.
Nor do the Shockers care to hear any pandering platitudes about what a great run they have made in this NCAA Tournament, which has included wins over Pittsburgh (73-55) and top-seeded Gonzaga (76-70), and a 72-58 thumping of No. 13 La Salle on Thursday.
“We’re not satisfied,” forward Carl Hall said. “Our guys are humble. We’re hungry. They say we’re not supposed to be here, so we play with a chip on our shoulder.”
The Shockers play a physical brand of basketball, with Hall and fellow 6-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early combining to average 26.7 points and 12 rebounds in the tournament.
“We got a motto: Play angry,” Hall said. “We’re playing angry, and it’s hard to beat a team that plays angry.”
Wichita State outrebounds opponents by 8.1 per game and limits them to 39.6 percent shooting. The Shockers had a 47-29 edge on the boards against La Salle and limited the Explorers to 36 percent shooting, the same as Gonzaga shot against them.
“I’ve always said this team is going to defend and rebound every night, with very few exceptions,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “When the stars align and the shooting gets going, it can be really, really special.”
Marshall’s formula of defense and rebounding has produced 138 wins in six years at Wichita State, including 25 or more wins in four consecutive seasons. His Shockers earned a second straight NCAA bid despite having to replace their top five scorers from last season.
They returned to the tournament in part because of a competitive culture that Marshall creates by making the losers of individual practice drills run sprints throughout the season.
“We go at it in practice,” said Hall, a sixth-year senior who spent two years of college working in a factory while not playing because of a medical condition.
Wichita State’s toughness showed in a victory at Virginia Commonwealth in the season’s second game, a victory over Iowa in Mexico and a home win over Missouri Valley champion Creighton.
The Shockers made only 33 percent of their three-point shots heading into a round of 32 game against Gonzaga, including a woeful 2-of-20 performance behind the arc in a victory over Pittsburgh of the Big East.
Wichita State then made 14 of 28 threes against Gonzaga, including seven straight late to erase a 49-41 deficit with 12 minutes remaining, to post its first victory over a No. 1-ranked team since 1963.
“This team can go as far as they want to go when they’re playing well,” Marshall said.
And playing angry, too.