- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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OMAHA, Neb. -- The Wichita State Shockers made the most of their long-awaited shot at redemption against the in-state power Kansas Jayhawks, ousting the second-seeded Jayhawks from the NCAA tournament with a 78-65 win in the round of 32 Sunday at the CenturyLink Center.
The seventh-seeded Shockers, playing Kansas for the first time since a blowout loss in 1993, duplicated their 1981 postseason win over the Jayhawks behind 19 points from Tekele Cotton. Wichita State trailed for all but two minutes of the first half but took the lead at halftime on Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer with 54 seconds left and repeatedly hit key shots in the second half to pull away.
The loss for Kansas marked its third in four games in the tournament against a Missouri Valley Conference foe, following eliminations in 2006 at the hands of Bradley and in 2010 against Northern Iowa.
Here are five observations from Wichita State's upset:
The Shockers wanted it more. It’s a tough thing to say after an elimination game, but Wichita State fed off the energy of its hungry fan base, which has watched Kansas continue to flourish under Bill Self as Gregg Marshall built a monster in Wichita, only to get the constant cold shoulder from the big boys in Lawrence. When Kansas extended its lead in the first half, WSU veterans Ron Baker, Cotton and VanVleet only grew more resolute to reward their fans for more than two decades of waiting.
Kansas is missing a killer. Perry Ellis, still not entirely himself after a late-season knee injury, is a well-rounded player. Frank Mason came out with great energy Sunday. The Jayhawks featured an excellent cast of athletes this season in Wayne Selden Jr., Kelly Oubre, Landen Lucas and Brannen Greene. But none of those guys strike fear into the hearts of their foes. Maybe Cliff Alexander, out while under NCAA investigation, could have turned into that guy in the postseason. Or maybe the Jayhawks are struggling to produce a program-changer in the one-and-done era. Even the ultra-talented Andrew Wiggins disappeared last season in the round of 32. Who is the next KU superstar?
You won’t find a better backcourt than Wichita State. Like Indiana on Friday in the round of 64 with Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., Kansas started a group in Mason, Selden and Oubre that held an edge in pure talent over the Shockers. No group, though, will outhustle Baker, VanVleet and Cotton. Baker, who endured a poor shooting performance against the Hoosiers, helped bring the Shockers back from eight points down with his shooting in the first half. VanVleet, relatively quiet on offense after a career-high-tying 27 points in the opening game, remained his usual steely self.
The Shockers are better than the sum of their parts. It’s the sign of a well-coached team, and Wichita State is exactly that under Marshall, the envy of every stagnant major program in his eighth year at the MVC school. WSU lost versatile wing Cleanthony Early to the NBA after last season and barely took a step back. Sure, its record dipped, but these 30-win Shockers showcase a better cast of role players than a year ago, led by guard Evan Wessel, forward Darius Carter and athletic true freshman Zach Brown off the bench. If a star goes cold, there’s always another guy to do the chores. Early did so much last season that WSU could necessarily say the same thing.
WSU is far from finished. This same core for the Shockers took Russ Smith and Louisville to the wire in the Final Four two years ago and endured Kentucky’s best punch last year in the round of 32. That's right, the Wildcats, who are decent this season, ruined Wichita State’s perfect season in St. Louis last March. Given the chance to return the favor in Cleveland, could the Shockers do the same? Notre Dame will be no easy task for Wichita State in the Sweet 16, of course, and Kentucky must win another game to reach the doorstep of the Final Four. But imagine the setting in a Midwest Regional final rematch of what rated as perhaps the most exciting game of the tournament a year ago.