"Are we satisfied that everybody's saying that we're not going to win this game?" he said. "That, hey, it was a nice little story, but we're not going to beat Kentucky? I say, if they change the uniforms and gave us Kentucky across our uniforms and gave Kentucky whatever team, they would be talking about us right now as one of the best college basketball teams in the history of this great game. Do you hear anybody saying that? No. Because they don't expect you to come out and do these things. They don't expect you to be able to beat the No. 1 [team] in the country in the preseason. We have proven all year long that we can do this. This is an unbelievable opportunity. You've gotta understand if you want to be David or Goliath, or both."
Minutes before the final game of Wichita State's season, coach Gregg Marshall was speaking to his players (and Sports Illustrated senior writer Luke Winn). Marshall was firing the Shockers up, preparing his peerless team for the latest, biggest moment of their basketball lives.
The paradox was evident. Wichita State, the No. 1 seed in a loaded Midwest region, was still undefeated entering the NCAA tournament's round of 32. The Shockers had already made history: They were the first team with 31 regular-season wins, the first to get 35 wins deep without a loss. Kentucky, the No. 8 seed, was a clearly talented but altogether frustrating 10-loss team. And Wichita State was barely the favorite.
Fitting, then, that it was in the Scottrade Center locker room before the defining 40 minutes of Wichita State's season when Marshall uttered that most trenchant description of the Shockers' unforgettable 35-1 season: "David or Goliath, or both."
Has any team as good as the Shockers suffered so long from such a reputation gap? In October, Wichita State was a nice little post-Final Four story with a great group of returning players and a well-deserved little boost in program profile. In December, after wins over Saint Louis, Tennessee and Alabama, the Shockers were a fun "hey, they'll be favored the rest of the way!" talking point. In January, they were an easy concept to argue against. ("No way they'll get to March unbeaten.") In February, they were already defending themselves from -- or at least being the subject of -- debates about schedule strength, about No. 1 seeds, about their theoretical record in a theoretical Big Ten.
All the while, mind you, competition-adjusted analytics were telling us the Shockers were one of the best five or 10 teams in the country. Not the best, necessarily, but one of the best. And it still took until March to finally prove it.
Weirdly enough, they proved it in a loss. The 40 minutes of basketball that followed Marshall's biblical exhortation was the best of the season, and the best of the tournament -- a tournament that was already better than its own impossibly high standards. (Oh, to relive that first weekend! I'd be willing to part ways with a toe. Maybe two.)
Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76 began with some brilliant Shockers offense, gave us bruising Wildcats rebounding and surprisingly grown-up cohesion, featured an NBA-ready Cleanthony Early in a masterful second half (3s, drives, step-back sticks, you name it), saw Kentucky's Harrison twins control the game with physical thrusts to the rim, and ended with a 25-foot Fred VanVleet jumper on a sideline out of bounds that would have caused us to have a full-blown mental meltdown had it somehow gone in. It's a month later, and we still haven't caught our breath.
The game was immediately and accurately deemed a classic. It propelled Kentucky to an eventual Final Four run; it made the Wildcats look like the preseason No. 1 we expected in October. Most of all, it finally, definitively quelled any and all doubt about Wichita State. The Shockers were never David, and they fell just short of Goliath. They were both, and also neither.
What we saw last season: Of course, the biggest reason the Shockers were even in the position to be 35-0 and a No. 1 seed and still the subject of vague doubt was because the Missouri Valley Conference -- rarely a powerhouse in the first place -- had a down season even by its own standards. Indiana State was a solid team (and one that gave Wichita State some real issues twice). And Northern Iowa ended up leading the league in per-possession offense, believe it or not. (The Shockers ranked second, and No. 1 by a ton defensively.) But at No. 94, the Panthers were the only other team to rank inside the adjusted efficiency top 100. With Creighton off contending for the Big East title (and putting Doug McDermott in the history books in his own right), Wichita State treated the MVC much the same way Daenerys Targaryen treats the powerful members of Slaver's Bay.
What we expect to see: Another Wichita State hegemon.
That's the No. 1 thing to expect. Even without Early and fellow seniors Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile, Wichita State will have Ron Baker and VanVleet, the reigning MVC player of the year, back next year. Another crop of juco big men join them, as do starters Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton. There is no reason to expect anything but another dominant Shockers campaign -- especially relative to competition.
How good will that competition be? Northern Iowa will have just about everyone back, most notably junior forward Seth Tuttle -- the only non-Shocker to crack the stats-based Pomeroy all-conference list. Indiana State will likely take a step back, but the Panthers should take a major step forward. A 16-15 finish is not the goal. A tournament bid is not outside the norm.
Other than that, it's hard to find other MVC contenders in the mix. The good news for Wichita State? Even if the Shockers spend another three months beating an overwhelmed conference to a pulp, no one will need convincing come March.