- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- The commemorative T-shirts Wichita State received for winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament Sunday were far from perfect. The back of the shirt contained the tournament bracket, and it had Indiana State listed as the winner.
“That’s crazy, right?” Shockers senior forward Cleanthony Early said. “I guess they predicted that we were going to lose.”
The mix-up was the result of an error by the T-shirt printer, one which conference officials didn’t catch before handing out the shirts. Yet you didn’t exactly need to be a true detective to recognize the yellow king of Arch Madness.
The Shockers turned back Indiana State 83-69 at the Scottrade Center to keep their loss column a flat circle and capture their first conference tournament title in 27 years. By doing so, they joined the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels as the only Division I teams ever to start a season 34-0. No other team has entered the NCAA tournament with 34 victories, as Wichita State will do next week, with a chance to set the record for perfection against a No. 16 seed.
So the Shockers weren’t about to lose here this weekend, not even against a sturdy and determined Indiana State squad fighting for its own NCAA bid. The crowd that suggested Wichita State would have been better off losing before the real madness begins overlooked this program’s hunger for an MVC tournament title after many disappointments in this city.
“Now that it’s all said and done,” guard Ron Baker said, “it’s a big relief. There was quite a bit of pressure on us, because it hasn’t happened in so many years.”
Relatively speaking, Indiana State put as much pressure on Wichita State as anyone had in a few weeks. After winning their first two tournament games by a combined 47 points, the Shockers found themselves clinging to a four-point lead with a little more than 13 minutes left.
But as they’ve done so often, they answered every thrust with a rally. Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton sank back-to-back 3-pointers to push the advantage back to double digits. The Sycamores pulled back within five points a few minutes later, but then Wichita State ripped off a 13-0 spurt to go up 68-50, and that was pretty much that.
“I didn’t have enough timeouts to stop their runs, but that’s what they do,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “If you turn it over, have any quick shot or lose it at one end, they put it in the basket at the other end. That’s why they’re undefeated. That’s why they’re hoisting the trophy.”
Even with leading scorer Early disappearing offensively in the second half and Baker uncharacteristically struggling with his shot (3-for-11 from the field, 0-for-6 on 3s), the Shockers didn't need to sweat. Point guard VanVleet, who focused mostly on distributing the ball during his first two tournament games, scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half to tie a career high. Cotton, the Valley’s defensive player of the year whom opponents used to sag off, had 20 points and went 4-for-6 behind the arc en route to tourney MVP honors.
“People kind of sleep on that part of my game,” Cotton said of his improved jumper. “But my whole team and my coaches give me confidence to overcome that.”
Nobody will ride into the NCAA tournament with more momentum than these Shockers. For the first time in a while, they actually had to execute down the stretch Sunday to secure a victory. But, as VanVleet noted, “It shows how far you’ve come when somebody being within four or five points is a heck of a test for you.”
They will have nearly two weeks now to rest up, savor the accomplishment of going 34-0 and get ready for the next assignment. The odds are good that they will be back in St. Louis as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. Good thing they exorcised some demons in this city.
“It would be something that we're comfortable with,” coach Gregg Marshall said. “There would not be any ‘Ooh, aah’ moments. I think we'd actually be staying, if we get the right seed, in the same hotel, which we're very comfortable with. We know the routine there. The breakfasts are very good.”
Going 34-0 brings certain expectations for the rest of the way, especially for a team whose schedule and conference have constantly been knocked. Wichita State got to the Final Four last season. Would anything less than 40-0 now qualify as a disappointment?
“I don’t think we have to win it all,” Early said. “But we want to win it all. We understand that a 34-0 season is just as rare as a Final Four, and what we’ve accomplished as a group is very special.
“Some people might say if we don’t win it all now it’s a failure. But those are people who can’t get past their own simple minds.”
Know this: Until the Shockers actually lose a game, it’s probably wise to hold off on printing any more completed brackets without them.