College Basketball Nation: Malcolm Armstead

ATLANTA -- As the lowest remaining seed (No. 9) and the only team left from a mid-major conference (Missouri Valley), Wichita State, at least on paper, may have the most difficult route this weekend to a national championship.

But playing in their first Final Four since 1965, the Shockers don’t see themselves as underdogs. After all, few of them took an easy route to even get to WSU in the first place.

“You’ve got a kid from Nigeria, you’ve got a kid from Rockford, Illinois ... you’ve got guys who have transferred, walked on, had times when they didn’t know if they would play again,’’ said redshirt freshman Ron Baker.

“It’s remarkable how we’re all on the team, and we’ve got all our individual stories -- but it makes for a great big giant story, in itself.”

Indeed, top-seeded Louisville on Saturday will face a bruising, confident, defensive-minded team that Shockers freshman Fred VanVleet affectionately calls a “band of misfits.” And boy, do they fit well together.

Leading scorer Cleanthony Early is a transfer who played Division III his first two seasons because he wanted to stay close to his family after the drowning death of his older brother. Leading rebounder Carl Hall spent two years sidelined because of a heart condition -- and at one point, he was painting light bulbs on the night shift in a factory to pay tuition.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFor some of the Wichita State Shockers, it's been a long road to the Final Four.
“I made about $12 an hour,’’ Hall said Friday. “... I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody. It was just a hot, nasty job.”

Even though WSU didn’t have a scholarship immediately available for him, point guard Malcolm Armstead transferred from Oregon last season and took a part-time job at a car dealership to help pay the bills. Sharpshooter Baker, from tiny Scott City, Kan., was a preferred walk-on last season -- and said his second choice would have been a Kansas community college if WSU hasn’t worked out.

And it doesn’t end there.

Senior Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College.

Transfer Kadeem Coleby is from the Bahamas.

Junior Nick Wiggins -- whose younger brother Andrew is a No. 1 high school prospect -- and freshman Chadrack Lufile are from Canada.

Having so many players come from so many places and backgrounds makes Early, for one, believe this is a team of destiny.

Maybe so. But it’s also the result of coach Gregg Marshall and staff his finding the right mix at the right time. This team, after all, lost five seniors from last season’s regular season conference-winning squad.

And then it lost Hall for seven regular-season games because of a thumb injury. Baker for 21 games because of a hurt foot.

Yet here they are.

“We want winners,’’ Marshall said. “We want guys that really want to win, that want to commit to something bigger than themselves. We want guys that are tough and athletic so they can defend and rebound at a high level. And ultimately, [we want] some guys that can put it in the basket.

“I think we have a great blend of those guys, but the biggest thing is we have character guys.”

Guys who know the seedings and see the challenges ahead, but who Friday were loose and smiling and eager to play -- and who refuse to see themselves as underdogs.

“We’ve got a lot of guys on this team who have been through a lot, experienced a lot -- and that’s helped us all relate to each other, win together,’’ VanVleet said. “... Some people might see us as underdogs, but when you get to the Final Four, seedings are just a number.”


Where’s that?: Baker wasn’t exactly surprised Friday when couple of workers on the Georgia Dome concourse asked the location of Wichita State.

After all, some of his teammates didn’t exactly know where the school was when they were first recruited, either.

“I had to Google it, see how big the city was,’’ Hall said. “When I first heard the word ‘Wichita,’ I’m thinking a small country town, people walking around with cowboy boots on, things like that.”

Armstead’s thoughts went worlds beyond that.

“First thing came to mind was ‘Wizard of Oz,’ like Dorothy,’’ he said. “That was the only thing I knew about it.”

Baker, a Kansan, knew exactly how to answer the question, though.

“I told them it is in the middle of Kansas, kind of in the middle of nowhere,’’ he said, then broke into a smile. “Everybody knows where Kansas is.”

Taking a compliment: Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently described the Shockers’ defense as “Marquette on steroids.”

Marshall’s response: “We’re not on steroids, [but] other than that, I think it’s a definite compliment. Buzz Williams does a marvelous job. He’s one of the great coaches in our country. Rick Pitino, who I have the utmost respect for and admiration, for him to say that is certainly a compliment. I hope that it’s true ... if we’re ‘Marquette on steroids’ defensively tomorrow, that will gives us a great chance.”
Editor's note: Before heading to Atlanta, Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf met at the watercooler to discuss both of Saturday's Final Four matchups.

Eamonn: Myron! Get your Buck Owens vinyl out of storage, because we are together again. My lonely nights are now at an end. And we are on the cusp of the culmination of the 2012-13 season, this weekend's Final Four in Atlanta, and I really can't believe that's the case. Did I black out, or did we time-travel from October to today? It's got to be one of the two.

The Watercooler fam is back together once more, and our first item of business is hashing out the left side of the bracket: No. 1-seed Louisville vs. No. 9 Wichita State. I was in the building Sunday night for the Cardinals' remarkable second-half throttling of Duke, one invested with a palpable sense of purpose and energy -- even in the crowd -- and I have to admit, after seeing that, it is very difficult for me to imagine Louisville losing focus long enough to let the Shockers pull an upset.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith, Rick Pitino
Matt Goins/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty ImagesCoach Rick Pitino, guard Russ Smith and Louisville are favored against Wichita State, but that hasn't mattered to the Shockers in this tournament.
This is a very popular opinion, and I'm guessing you probably share it. But play devil's advocate with me. You were in L.A. You've formed the argument in a column already. Why can Wichita State win this thing?

Myron: Eamonn and Myron together again. Watercooler. I like the sound of that. No idea where the season went. Seems like yesterday we were just talking about basketball on aircraft carriers. ... But Atlanta is here. Final Four. Wow. Can't wait. I'm with you on Louisville, though. The Cardinals are clearly dangerous. That win against Duke was so impressive. Louisville is as close to great as any team in the field. .... But I also think Wichita State is legit. Here's the first thing. The Shockers have a bunch of players who could play for high-major programs right now. Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead and Cleanthony Early all starred at the junior college level, and there's no doubt those guys could play big roles for most Big Six teams today.

So Wichita State is talented enough to defeat the Cards. The talent gap isn't as wide as their respective conference affiliations suggest. Also, the Shockers are frustrating everybody with their defense. Teams can't score outside. Their tourney opponents have shot about 28 percent from the 3-point line. Hall is swatting shots like Dikembe Mutombo inside. And on offense, Armstead is a proven leader. He's out of control sometimes, but he's very aggressive. They get buckets and they can pounce on teams (see fast starts against La Salle and Ohio State). The final factor is the team's experience. These guys are true veterans. They won't panic against the Cardinals.

But we've heard that before, Eamonn. Everybody has a plan for Louisville until they're on the same floor with Louisville. This team hasn't lost a game since early February. How do you beat the Cardinals?

Eamonn: Yeah, I mean ... I don't know. I can give you reasons the Cards can lose. For instance, they create a ton of their offense off turnovers and defensive pressure, and if they meet a team or a specific player (cough, Trey Burke, cough) that could maintain the ball well enough to erase that part of their game, they might start to look a little bit more average. They aren't a great shooting team, so if you can keep them out of the paint and get them to put it up from deep, and you rebound really well, and the turnover thing ... you can see where I'm going with this.

There is no margin for error; all it takes is a possession or two to speed the game up and get you out of sync, and then they're running at you and finishing layups and you're done. The Cardinals put you in a blender, and when they dictate the terms of the game, which is almost always, they're very difficult to beat.

Myron: But that's why I think Wichita State might have a chance. That furious Ohio State comeback on Saturday would have rocked most teams. I mean, you're up 20 and then minutes later, you're only up by a few. The Shockers had to fight for that win. They had to make plays against a team that hadn't lost since mid-February. That's the story of their season: You face adversity. You respond to it. Louisville has obviously gone through its own adversity. The Kevin Ware situation alone proved that this squad is as mentally tough as any team in the country. But I don't think Wichita State is intimidated by anything the Cardinals will throw at them. It's hard to find many reasons for an upset on paper. But if swagger is a factor, then WSU certainly has a chance, right?

Eamonn: Oh, absolutely. A couple of coaches I asked to help me with a scouting report said the same thing about Wichita State: The Shockers always believe they're the best team on the floor. They play to a sold-out show every night in Wichita, they don't see themselves as underdogs (and rightly so; George Mason this is not) or a second-tier program, and they exude that sort of overall confidence whenever they take the court. I think that was especially apparent against Ohio State, when nothing seemed to faze them.

They should be able to compete with the Cardinals on the glass; the Shockers' greatest strength is their rebounding (thank you, Carl Hall). The question is whether they can handle that Louisville defensive pressure, both in the full and half court, possession by possession over 40 minutes, without making a few key errors that tilt the balance.

On Sunday night I heard a couple of Louisville fans walking out of the arena and one said: "Well, we got to get to the title game now, right?" His buddy replied: "Bet you that's what the Buckeyes said, too." That's exactly what the Buckeyes said, and we know how that worked out. Underestimate Gregg Marshall & Co. at your own peril.

Myron: Yep, this is a bad year for assumptions. The fact that we have just one No. 1 seed in Atlanta proves as much. ... So we agree that Louisville should win it, Eamonn. But Wichita State can. Man, I can't wait to see what happens.

Eamonn: As you are fond of saying, my friend: Get that popcorn ready.

Digging In: Wichita State

April, 2, 2013
"Digging In" is our slightly wonky look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who must scout and prep for said teams all season. Today: Wichita State.

When you talk to coaches about Wichita State, even when you're asking them to help you recreate their in-depth advance preparations, you frequently hear some variation of the same refrain: They play hard, they play smart, they play together and above all they brim with confidence -- they always believe they're the best team on the floor.

"You always see that with them," Creighton assistant Steve Merfeld said. "They play with that confidence that when they step on the floor they're supposed to win -- that has always been there."

Of course, thinking you're going to win and actually executing well enough to get it done are two different things, and finishing 5-5 in the final 10 games of your regular season (including losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois), as Wichita State did, is a far cry from knocking off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State en route to the Final Four.

If confidence is a constant, what's been the difference? Ron Baker is a good place to start. The redshirt freshman has done a rather remarkable thing: After missing two and a half months due to injury, and playing just 10 games before that injury, Baker returned to a big role in WSU rotation just in time for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. That would be impressive enough had he not been excellent since, but he has been: In seven postseason games, Baker has shot 8-of-15 from 2, 11-of-26 from 3, and 24-of-27 from the free throw line. He has 24 rebounds and 10 turnovers. And his key shots down the stretch against Gonzaga -- when Wichita State poured open one of the freakiest flash offensive floods we've seen all season -- effectively drowned Kelly Olynyk and Co.

Baker has also made the Shockers difficult to scout. Whereas most teams in the tournament have an entire season of film of the same lineup from which coaches can cull, Baker has not been a part of that bargain. When Merfeld and Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, the two I asked for help with this scout, saw the Shockers in the regular season, Baker wasn't in the lineup.

Even so, there are still some things you can rely on Wichita State to do, some points of emphasis both coaches readily agreed on, and some things these obviously interested observers have seen during Wichita State's four-game run to the Final Four:

When Wichita State has the ball

[+] EnlargeRon Baker
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportGuard Ron Baker's return from injury has added to the difficulty in scouting Wichita State.
1. Know where Carl Hall is at all times. This usually isn't very difficult -- Hall is a very active and physical forward on the low block -- but he is by far the best offensive rebounder on a team that typically whose best offensive feature, the only place where it ranks among the top 100 teams in the country this season, is its 38 percent offensive rebounding percentage. If you can take Hall off the glass, you can hold Wichita State to one shot, and you're in much better shape when it's a one-shot team. "When we were able to beat them we were able to neutralize Carl," Merfeld said. "He is just a monster on the offensive glass."

2. Keep Malcolm Armstead in front, and challenge Cleanthony Early as best you can. The Shockers aren't exactly known for being an up-tempo team, but they have gotten good looks out of transition and secondary sets all season, and Armstead has typically been the reason why. "He's good in transition on quick-hitters or he can settle in and run some of their stuff," Jacobson said. "He's good in [the half court], good in transition and good in the late shot clock, so you get a guy that can make plays in all three situations." Merfeld, meanwhile, compared Early's scoring and shot-making abilities to All-America Creighton forward Doug McDermott's, in that "you think you have him defended and the angles shut off and he finds a way to finish it anyway."

3. Finish the game. When you look at Wichita State's overall offensive numbers this tournament, there is good reason to be impressed: The Shockers haven't been held to below a point per possession to date, and they scored more efficiently (1.19 PPP) against Gonzaga than they did against La Salle (1.16). But Wichita State has been especially lethal late in games: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wichita State is shooting 58.3 percent in the final five minutes of games in the tournament, up from 40.8 percent the rest of the game. The Shockers also have drawn twice as many fouls as their opponents in the final five minutes of games, and though they're shooting 34 percent on 3-point field goals, they've shot 44.1 percent in the second half. Maybe that's "clutch," or maybe it's a fluke, but either way opposing defenses have to stay locked in. (Just ask Gonzaga.)

Trademark set: UCLA Triangle Stack. "They run a million different things out of that set," Merfeld said. "And they get good shots out of it. It's varied a little bit in the tournament because they've been attacking so much more in transition, but in the half court they set up that stack and have dozens of little variations they get out of it."

When Wichita State is on defense

1. Run if you can. "The biggest thing to us has always been the ability to score in transition, before they set their defense," Jacobson said. "Once they set their defense they're a very hard team to play against."

2. Make the extra pass. Wichita State doesn't typically extend its defense in an effort to force copious turnovers. Instead, the Shockers prefer to stay in front. They challenge shooters well, particularly inside the arc, where they allow just 43.4 percent shooting, and they don't give up many open looks. "Their rotate on defense exceptionally well," Merfeld said. "You have to pass and make the extra pass to get good shots off against them." The importance of open, good shots is tantamount, because it's more likely you'll find one of those than find an offensive rebound and easy putback against a team that allows just 26.3 percent of available offensive rebounds (11th-best in the country) to slip into its opponents' hands.

3. Get to the line. If there is a weakness to the Shockers' defense, it's the propensity for fouls; their foul-shot-to-field-goal-attempt ratio is 37.8 percent, No. 278 in the country. "Get to the free throw line" is not a particularly sophisticated piece of advice, but it is without question the path of least resistance against the Shockers' D.

Defensive style: Wichita State is a man-to-man defensive team. This season, of the plays in the Synergy scouting database, Wichita State played 2,221 defensive possessions in the man-to-man and just 158 in zone. And yet Jacobson praised coach Gregg Marshall's ability to tweak things just so. "They change their defenses just enough so you never really settle in -- your ability to adjust and take care of the basketball is affected," he said. "Primarily they play man, but they'll throw a press on you after made free throws, they'll play a 2-2-1 three-quarter court and then settle back into a 2-3 zone. You have to be ready to handle that aspect."

Takeaways: For all of the crucial markers of Wichita State's basketball personality, the fact of the matter is that its next opponent is Louisville, which tends to Zerg-swarm opponents, drain them of their former characteristics, and leave nothing but dry husks in their wake. "The two things from Louisville's standpoint against Wichita State are rebounding and whether the defensive pressure, both in the half court and the full court, is effective," Jacobson said. "If [the Cardinals] get the game turned with their defense and then get out in transition and get going with their guards, and they rebound well, it could be a very difficult game for Wichita State."

The conventional strategy might be to slow the game down as much as possible, but Merfeld was convinced Marshall would tell his players to attack Louisville's press -- to push forward and get baskets if they crossed half court with a man advantage and the ball in a playmaker's hands, even at the risk of playing right into Louisville's strategy.

"They'll attack it, they're relentless," Merfeld said. "It's what their role is, their attitude -- what they're supposed to do right now. They're attacking, and they're playing exceptional basketball."

Four Things To Know: Wichita State

April, 2, 2013
When a No. 9 seed reaches the Final Four, there's bound to be some remarkable historical significance. When that school comes from a mid-major conference, that's magnified. Take a look at the facts and numbers to put Wichita State's Cinderella run into perspective.

1. Low seeds make a Final Four longshot
Wichita State is just the second No. 9 seed to make the Final Four, joining Penn in 1979. The Shockers hope their luck is better than the Quakers' 24 years ago. That year, Penn lost by 34 to Michigan State in the national semifinal. Only three teams have reached the Final Four as a lower seed than the Shockers. None advanced to the final.

Villanova was an 8 seed in 1985 when it won the title, the lowest seed to do so.

Wichita State is also the first team from the Missouri Valley to make the Final Four since the Larry Bird-led Indiana State team in 1979. That year, the Sycamores lost to Michigan State in the national title game. It’s just the 3rd time that a Missouri Valley team has reached the national semifinals in the last 40 seasons (1975 Louisville).

2. Defensive dominance
Perhaps overshadowed by Syracuse’s stifling run, Wichita State is holding opponents to 34.3 percent from the field in the tournament. Among those who have played multiple games, only the Orange (28.9 percent) have kept opponents lower.

Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State have all experienced one of their three worst shooting games of the season against Wichita State. Gonzaga hadn’t shot below 41.5 percent prior to its 35.6 percent effort in the Round of 32.

3. Back after a long Final Four gap
Wichita State is in the Final Four for the first time since 1965. That 48-year gap between Final Four appearances is the fifth longest of any school with multiple appearances. After making it in 1941, Wisconsin waited 59 years before making its next Final Four. That’s the longest streak. Texas (56), Stanford (56) and West Virginia (51) also endured longer streaks than Wichita State.

That 1965 Wichita State squad was led by Dave “The Rave” Stallworth and Nate Bowman, both first round picks in the NBA draft. You’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that squad. After all, even current Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall was only 2 years old.

But you may have heard about one of the Shockers’ games. After losing to UCLA, Wichita State faced Princeton in the third-place game. Future U.S. Senator Bill Bradley scored a Final Four record 58 points to lead Princeton to the win.

4. A new cast of players
At the beginning of the season, it wouldn’t have been a great surprise that a team would make the Final Four after losing its top five scorers. No one thought it would be Wichita State and not Kentucky. The Shockers didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP poll, while the Wildcats were third.

Marshall’s squad has been boosted by a pair of transfers. Cleanthony Early transferred from Sullivan Junior College in New York, while Malcolm Armstead sat out last season after transferring from Oregon. Early and Armstead are the Shockers top two scorers this season.
Four for Four is our quick look at a few things you need to know right here and now about the 2013 Final Four. We did it last April too, but I can’t remember why the introduction was so long.

"Guards win in the tournament."

There are a lot of cliches in sports, and pretty much all of them drive me crazy -- grit, toughness, any and all war-related analogies, we're taking it one day at a time, we move on to the next play, etc. -- mostly because they often make it maddeningly difficult to get to the actual thing itself. How are you taking it one day at a time? What kind of discipline does that entail? How can you move on to the next play when failure is so fresh in your mind? What about high-level athletes fosters that mindset?

But if we're going to use a cliche, it better at least be true, rather than a nonsense series of words designed to prevent anyone from having to actually say anything. Many seemingly pedestrian cliches began as simple, obvious truths.

Here's one: Good guards win in the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMichigan's Trey Burke is proof that elite guard play can be a huge advantage in the NCAA tournament.
It is easy to bristle at this, because it feels like the basketball equivalent of some of baseball's silliest arguments. Actually, no, I don't want that gritty guy who bunts for a living and plays chill music in the clubhouse; just give me the best players, please.

Thing is? The best players in this year's Final Four most frequently happen to be guards.

  • Trey Burke isn't just the best player of the tournament, or the best guard, he is the national player of the year. He's just … complete. He scores efficiently when he needs to, he drives and kicks to one of the Wolverines' number of shooters, he handles, he hits step-back jumpers (not all of them as crazy as Kansas, but still). Mitch McGary has made Michigan a legitimately challenging physical proposition on the front line, but Burke has had this offense humming pretty much all season.

  • Russ Smith and Peyton Siva lead the way for Louisville, not only by attacking and scoring and starting every play on the offensive end, but by being some of the handsiest and most unrelenting steals-creators in all of college basketball. When those two create turnovers, particularly in the backcourt, Louisville's offensive efficiency soars.

  • Then there's Syracuse, which features one of the nation's best assist men in guard Michael Carter-Williams -- whose 6-6 frame has always screamed "shooting guard" but whose innate passing ability has made him one of the more unguardable forces in the tournament -- paired alongside savvy vet Brandon Triche. Together, their size at the top of the 2-3 is an absolute nightmare for opposing coaches and players.

Of course, none of these players got to the Final Four by sheer individual skill. Louisville might not get here without Gorgui Dieng. Michigan certainly doesn't without McGary. Syracuse's back line is nearly as imposing as its front, with C.J. Fair really blossoming into a dangerous all-around player. Wichita State's best players -- the aforementioned Early and Carl Hall -- are both 6-8.

But as we saw in Michigan's win against Kansas, it really does help to have a guard who (a) knows what he's doing, and (b) knows he knows what he's doing. Having Burke on their team is an incredible advantage for the Wolverines in a big game, because he can handle it all the time, facilitate offense, get scoring when he needs to. Smith and Siva have some of that too, but they're great for entirely different reasons -- their unique ability to speed the whole thing up, rather than slow it down or make it more manageable. Certainly, none of the four teams at the Final Four would be here without good guard play, which is also obvious. But the extent to which each team relies on that position is a clear theme -- and, if we're willing to admit it, some proof of a hoary old cliche.

Video: Louisville-Wichita State preview

April, 1, 2013

Rece Davis, Seth Greenberg and Jay Bilas discuss whether Wichita State can knock of Louisville.
LOS ANGELES -- On Saturday night, Gregg Marshall danced.

The Wichita State head coach swayed back and forth as he held his family members. The school's band blasted Aretha Franklin's "Respect" in the background, while Marshall inhaled the mood created by the vibrant gathering around him. Then, he shuffled toward the ladder to cut down the nets.

Wichita State players hugged one another on the court. Shockers fans in the stands screamed. Some bewildered supporters slapped the shoulders of friends. All smiled.

That scene followed Wichita State's 70-66 upset victory over Ohio State in the Elite Eight at Staples Center. After a dramatic conclusion to a game that had gone from lopsided victory to thriller, the Shockers earned the program's first trip to the Final Four since 1965.

Malcolm Armstead finished with 14 points (6-for-21), 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Cleanthony Early added 12 points and Carl Hall blocked six shots.

Wichita State held Ohio State to a 31.1 percent clip from the field (second lowest of the season for the Buckeyes) and a 5-for-25 mark from the 3-point line. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Ohio State's 7-for-35 tally outside the paint was its worst effort in its last four NCAA tournament appearances.

Yes, the Shockers will be in Atlanta with Syracuse and the winners of Sunday's matchups between Duke and Louisville in Indianapolis and Michigan and Florida in Dallas.

Wichita State will be just the fifth team with a 9-seed or lower to reach the Final Four. No 9-seed has ever won it all. But …

"We've got a team full of fighters and I don't think we're done yet," Hall said.

For Myron Medcalf's full column, click here.

LOS ANGELES -- Quick reaction to Wichita State’s 70-66 victory over Ohio State in the Elite Eight at Staples Center on Saturday night:

Overview: Ohio State entered the game riding an 11-game winning streak. The second-seeded Buckeyes hadn’t lost since mid-February. But they were tense early. And Wichita State exploited their struggles.

Midway through the first half, the ninth-seeded Shockers launched a 12-2 run that ended with Demetric Williams' 3-pointer with 6:28 remaining in the half. Wichita State, the underdog, expanded its lead the rest of the way. The Missouri Valley Conference standout entered halftime with a 35-22 advantage.

The Buckeyes shot 2-for-10 from the 3-point line in the first half after entering the game shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. Deshaun Thomas shot 4-for-13 in the first half and missed all five 3-point attempts before the break.

With 12:28 to go, Wichita State led 51-31. That’s no typo. But the Buckeyes kept fighting. With 8:22 on the game clock, they had cut the deficit to 13 points (56-43).

It didn’t help that Cleanthony Early suffered an ankle injury midway through the second half. But Early returned a few minutes later, and the Shockers continued to battle.

Fred Van Vleet's three-point play with 7:03 to go gave the Shockers a 60-46 lead.

The Buckeyes had opportunities to cut Wichita State’s lead to single digits with the clock ticking down past the six-minute mark, but they couldn't do so until Thomas scored on a putback after a Carl Hall turnover. Wichita State 60, Ohio State 52.

Ron Baker hit a pair of free throws that allowed Wichita State to regain a double-digit lead with just less than four minutes to play; a LaQuinton Ross 3-pointer on OSU’s next possession cut the Shockers’ lead to seven. Ross forced a turnover that eventually led to a pair of free throws with 3:13 to play. He made both, and the Buckeyes were down just five.

A Van Vleet offensive foul call gave the Buckeyes another possession. Shannon Scott hit two free throws with 2:45 to play. Wichita State 62, Ohio State 59.

A huge Tekele Cotton 3-pointer extended the lead; Thomas answered with a lay-in.

With 2:07 to go, the same Wichita State that had a 20-point lead early in the second half was up just 65-61.

Van Vleet’s bucket with 59 seconds to go, a drive and a drop, was huge. Ohio State missed on the other end, and Baker went to the free throw line with 51.3 seconds to play and the Shockers nursing a 67-61 lead. He made both.

Wichita State 69, Ohio State 61.

The Buckeyes failed to convert on a series of chances until Aaron Craft's 3-pointer gave Ohio State one final slice of hope. Wichita State led 70-66 with 6.8 seconds to play. Cotton took the next inbounds and drew a foul but missed the free throw. Craft put up a 3-pointer on the other end that didn’t fall.

Game over. Wow.

Turning point: When the Buckeyes (29-8) finally started making shots in the second half. They were 8-for-33 in the first half. Couldn’t get much worse. Midway through the second half -- as Thomas began to take smarter shots -- Ohio State began to play like the team that won the Big Ten tournament title in Chicago two weeks ago. But Wichita State was just too strong in the end.

Star of the game: Malcolm Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, finished the game with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.

Stat of the game: Ohio State went 5-for-25 from the 3-point line. The Buckeyes had shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in three previous tourney games.

Up next: Wichita State (30-8) will face the winner of Sunday's meeting between Louisville and Duke next Saturday in Atlanta.
Carl HallAP Photo/Jae C. HongCarl Hall's 16-point, 8-rebound, 3-block night powered Wichita State into the Elite Eight.

LOS ANGELES -- A few years ago, Carl Hall told his mother that he was willing to risk his life to play basketball.

Jackie Fields was understandably disturbed by the idea, because her son’s heart condition, which prompted fainting spells, had disrupted his career shortly after high school.

“I was willing to live with the situation I put myself in,” Hall said Thursday night after guiding Wichita State to a 72-58 victory over La Salle in the Sweet 16 at Staples Center. “If anything happened, like if I possibly died or something on the court, I told her I would’ve died happy because I would have died doing something that I loved to do.”

On Thursday, the Shockers toyed with the Explorers to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1981.

On film, Hall had noticed that La Salle’s Jerrell Wright -- the only big man in his team’s starting rotation -- encountered problems whenever he tried to run with agile post players. At Staples Center, Hall pushed the pace.

He made his first six shots. By the time he missed, Wichita State had a 25-14 advantage.

The Shockers led 38-22 after outscoring the Explorers 24-10 in the paint before halftime. Nearly a minute into the second half, they were ahead by 22 points (44-22 with 18:48 to play).

La Salle played hard but couldn’t cut its deficit to single digits. From 9:03 to 6:40, Malcolm Armstead recorded nine of his 18 points. The 13th-seeded Explorers didn’t rally again.

Wichita State went 4-for-7 from the 3-point line in the second half. Four Shockers scored eight points or more. And they frustrated La Salle star Ramon Galloway (4-for-15, 11 points).

The victory began with Hall’s effort inside.

“Carl Hall set the tone with just outrunning their bigs, and then we got some good stops,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “We had a commanding lead early, and just were able to play with that cushion throughout. So congratulations to them, and we're really excited to be moving on to the Elite Eight.”

Neurocardiogenic syncope is defined by the National Center for Biotechnology Information as “a transient loss of consciousness."

Hall said he fainted for the first time while in high school. Doctors told him he was dehydrated. And then it happened again. And again.

He was finally diagnosed with the condition, which temporarily derailed his career. He was playing for Middle Georgia College at the time.

And then, suddenly, he was working at a factory.

“It was hard for him,” Marshall said. “[Doctors] shut him down. The one thing that he loved in life was playing basketball. And they said 'You can’t play.'”

So he spent two years painting fluorescent lights for a local business.

He stayed in school, though. Hall worked the graveyard shift, then attended morning classes.

In the meantime, he stayed close to basketball by competing on playgrounds. As the desire to return to the organized game grew and his reservations subsided -- months after doctors had given him medical clearance to compete -- he spoke to the staff at Middle Georgia and asked for another chance.

He returned to that team for the 2009-10 season and transferred to Northwest Florida State for the 2010-11 campaign.

That’s where Marshall saw him.

“I said to my staff, ‘I want that guy right there. The guy with the hair,’” Marshall said about Hall, who cut off his dreadlocks before the NCAA tournament.

But Marshall was also fearful.

[+] EnlargeCleanthony Early
Harry How/Getty ImagesCleanthony Early (8 points, 7 rebounds) was one of five Shockers with at least 7 points Thursday.
Shortly after he accepted the Wichita State job in 2007, he witnessed a high school player collapse and die on the floor. Guy Alang-Ntang, a prospect from Cameroon competing at a New Hampshire prep school, had just re-affirmed his commitment to Wichita State before the tragedy.

“He says, 'I want to come. I’m going to re-affirm my national letter of intent,'” Marshall said. “So I’m watching him play pickup and 15 minutes later he just lurches back and it’s over. That was my second day on the job.”

Although Hall hasn’t fainted since he played for Northwest Florida State, Marshall didn’t want that to happen to Hall when he arrived last season. But he also wanted the forward to be in playing shape.

It was a difficult task, however, because Hall was so nervous about strenuous drills. When he felt tired, he would just sit down while the rest of his teammates continued to run. He didn’t want to take the risk. Neither did Marshall.

“I didn’t want to be the coach who made him pass out or worse,” Marshall said.

So he told Hall that he had to push himself. Alone. And that’s what he did in the offseason. He rode his bike. He ran laps on the school’s track. And he conditioned his body so that it would allow him to race up the floor at Staples Center on Thursday.

The man who helped Wichita State reach the Elite Eight for the first time in more than 30 years is the product off a work ethic that defines Marshall’s entire program.

The Shockers have a blue-collar vibe that’s driven their unlikely success. This is a squad that will compete against Ohio State on Saturday for a shot at the Final Four, despite losing six Missouri Valley Conference regular-season games.

Injuries have been an issue all season, though. Hall (thumb), Ron Baker (foot), Evan Wessel (finger) and Ehimen Orukpe (ankle) all missed time with injuries.

But the ninth-seeded Shockers (29-8) are jelling at the right time now that most of the team is healthy.

And they’re winning with a tenacity, edginess and grit that Hall displays each night. It’s a spirit that the program has showcased throughout this run.

“We’ve had our share of adversity this year and these guys just keep finding a way,” Marshall said.

As he walked off the court Thursday, Hall looked toward the Shockers fans in the stands and smiled. When he waved his arms, they all rose and cheered.

It was a blissful ending for Hall and his teammates -- but definitely not one that the senior envisioned when his medical condition halted his career.

“It’s like I’m in a dream right now, you know, and I’m just trying to take advantage of this whole opportunity,” he said.

LOS ANGELES -- A quick look at Wichita State’s 72-58 victory over La Salle in the Sweet 16 at Staples Center on Thursday night:

Overview: Wichita State reached Los Angeles after uprooting No. 1 seed Gonzaga last weekend. The Shockers lost six regular-season Missouri Valley Conference games. They lost to Creighton in the MVC tournament title game.

So there were no real indications that they would make it out west for a shot at the Elite Eight.

But the No. 9 seed certainly proved that it belonged by its furious start against La Salle. The Shockers (29-8) led by 10 points with 8:53 remaining in the first half.

They were just too strong for 13-seed La Salle (24-10) from tipoff.

The Shockers shot 44.8 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. Malcolm Armstead led all scorers with 18 points.

Turning point: Jerrell Wright's layup 55 seconds in tied the game 2-2. Then the Shockers launched a 12-0 run. Carl Hall fueled the barrage on his way to making his first six shots. But they didn’t stop there. They entered halftime with a 38-22 advantage after outscoring La Salle 24-10 in the paint.

Star of the game: A few years ago, Hall was just another junior-college player. On Thursday, however, he led the Shockers to the Elite Eight. He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks and an assist.

Stat of the game: La Salle star Ramon Galloway went 4-for-15 from the field.

Next: Wichita State will face Ohio State in the Elite Eight on Saturday.
Call Wichita State shocking or surprising or an upstart for making its first NCAA Sweet Sixteen since 2006.

Just not “Cinderella.”

For this team, at this time, the label doesn’t quite stick.

“Maybe a lot of people will be surprised that we’re here -- but we’re not," Shockers guard Tekele Cotton said Saturday after his team upset top-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga to advance. “We’re confident that we can match up with any team from anywhere … that’s why I don’t feel like we are a Cinderella.”

[+] EnlargeGreg Marshall
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireGregg Marshall's Wichita State team has advanced to the Sweet 16 behind stellar defense.
Plus, the Shockers should be the favored team when they play 13th-seeded La Salle in Los Angeles on Thursday night. Part of that has to do with the bracket; even as a No. 9, they are the third-highest seed remaining (behind No. 2 Ohio State and No. 6 Arizona) in what has been a wild West Region. But part of that has to do with depth, stick-to-itiveness and the varying ways they can get under your skin.

WSU is known first and foremost for its defense. Forged from mentalities so competitive that freshman Fred Van Vleet once got mad at coach Gregg Marshall’s daughter for not performing better as his shuffleboard partner, the Shockers believe in bruising and contesting and rebounding on every possession.

In the round of 64, for example, they out-defensed defense-minded Pitt, holding the Panthers to 35.2 percent shooting -- including 5.9 percent from 3-point range.

Then against usually sharpshooting Gonzaga, the Shockers frustrated the Zags into a 35.6 percent night from the field -- while also showing another dimension themselves: the ability to score. And score a lot.

“When you walk in the door in October, the first thing that comes out of our coach’s mouth is defense and rebounding; that’s definitely something we strive for,” said redshirt freshman Ron Baker, who accounted for four of WSU’s 14 3-pointers Saturday. “Defense comes first, offense comes later. … But what people may not know is that we can shoot it, too.”

And people might not know it, because the makeup of this team is so relatively new.

Gone, at the beginning of the season, were five seniors from the squad that won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season in 2012, then lost in its first game of the NCAA tournament. But with replacements such as Oregon transfer point guard Malcolm Armstead, junior college transfer Cleanthony Early and experienced forward Carl Hall, WSU won its first nine games this season and picked up a Top-25 ranking.

Then came the setbacks: Hall broke his thumb and was out for a month; Baker was shelved for 21 games because of a stress fracture in his foot; starter Evan Wessel was lost for the season after breaking his pinkie. The Shockers had to persevere through a three-game losing streak in late January/early February, rally after back-to-back losses at the end of the regular season; and bounce back from a three-point defeat by Creighton in the MVC tournament final.

But in the long run, those tough breaks (and losses) might have helped the Shockers become tougher and more resilient, because they allowed more teammates to develop. And for the team to ultimately play 10 deep.

And now, perhaps, advance even deeper into the NCAA tournament.

"The stars are aligned for the Shockers right now," Marshall said this week during a conference call.

Not because they are a Cinderella. But because they are tough and focused and ready to prove it.

“All our guys believe they play with anyone, anywhere -- and we can," Cotton said. “We’re confident. There may be [people] out there who think of us as underdogs, but we don’t."

SALT LAKE CITY -- Wichita State junior Cleanthony Early is finally feeling well again.

Just in time to help push his team into the NCAA round of 32.

After a frustrating Missouri Valley Conference tournament in which he averaged only five points -- while vomiting, running a fever and battling lethargy -- the 6-foot-8 forward scored 21 points on 7-for-15 shooting on Thursday as the ninth-seeded Shockers beat No. 8 seed Pittsburgh 73-55.

In a defensive showdown in which points were at a grit-it-out premium, his bounce back was key.

“I encountered him by happenstance, just he and I in the elevator ... last night," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “I told him, ‘We need you to play well. You’re a very good player, and it’s hard for us to win when you don’t play well.’

“And he goes, 'I know. I got you.’ I think he felt bad about the way he played in Saint Louis, and this is a big stage and he showed what he’s capable of.”

[+] EnlargeCleanthony Early
Harry How/Getty ImagesCleanthony Early scored 21 points off the bench for the Shockers.
Before the game, Marshall had joked that the first team to 55 points would probably prevail, and it certainly looked that way from the get-go. These teams, in many ways, were mirror images, boasting players who like to bruise on the boards, demoralize with defense, bully with lineups that go 10 deep.

Pittsburgh held the size advantage, but from the beginning, the Shockers seemed more aggressive, pushing their “Play Angry” motto as they dove for loose balls, scrapped for rebounds, forced turnover after turnover.

The Panthers led 21-19 with 3:34 left in the first half when Wichita State began to pull away, outscoring Pitt 7-0 (including a layup by Early) to take a 26-21 lead into halftime. Early & Co extended that run to 9-0 to begin the second half. And although Pitt closed to within four points on a 3-pointer by Durand Johnson with 17:24 left, it never got any closer.

Partially because that was the Panthers’ only 3-pointer (they were 1-for-17 for the game).

“Those guys are tough," said Pitt guard Tray Woodall, who finished 1-for-12 with two points. “They came straight from the beginning of the game and they were physical until the end of the game.”

So much so that the Shockers held Pitt to 35.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 percent on 3-pointers. They outrebounded the Panthers by five, scored 21 points off 15 turnovers -- and ended up leading by double figures for the final seven minutes despite shooting only 38.8 percent for the game themselves.

Malcolm Armstead (22 points) and Carl Hall (11) also finished in double figures for Wichita State.

But getting Early -- who scored 39 points against SIU in January, and who Marshall thought could be an X factor for his team -- back on offensive track was important.

“It means a lot," Early said of his -- and his team’s -- performance. “But we’re pleased not satisfied ... we want to keep going."

And if he can keep performing like this, they have a better shot.

"Yes," he said, “I’m feeling a whole lot better than I did.”
For more on Missouri's four incoming transfers, click here. In the meantime, a look at some other transfers set to begin play at their new schools in 2012-13.

Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State (from Oregon): The point guard will be a huge boost to a Shocker backcourt that loses leading scorer Joe Ragland and Toure' Murry. Armstead, who played two seasons at Chipola College under Wichita assistants Greg Heiar and Dana Ford, will be a senior. He averaged 8.6 points and 4.4 assists in his last season with the Ducks (2010-11).

Khem Birch and Bryce Jones, UNLV (from Pittsburgh and USC): Birch, the former McDonald’s All-American, scorched a path from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas, lambasting his former team on the way out the door. Now he’s got a more up-tempo style and a ready-made scoring partner in the form of Mike Moser. Jones, who left USC with similar ill will after reports of an altercation with a teammate followed him out of town, is already a proven scorer -- he averaged 11 points per game before his minutes dropped following the addition of Jio Fontan.

Rotnei Clarke, Butler (from Arkansas): For a Bulldog team that struggled to score and shoot, Clarke is like a Christmas present. Arguably one of the best perimeter shooters in the game, he averaged 15 points and shot 44 percent from the arc before leaving Arkansas. Butler shot a woeful 28 percent from the 3-point line last season.

Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious, Iowa State (from Utah and Michigan State): Fred Hoiberg’s Ellis Island recruiting methods paid huge dividends this past season as the Cyclones' coach was able to meld a group of transfers into an NCAA tournament team. Now it’s time for more tinkering with the additions of Clyburn and Lucious. Lucious, a true point guard, brings two Final Four berths and an early dismissal from Michigan State to Ames. Clyburn left Utah as the team’s leading scorer (17.1 points) and rebounder (7.8).

Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie, Hofstra (from UConn and Penn State): If the risks reap the rewards, then Mo Cassara could right Hofstra’s downward blip quickly. The Pride won just three CAA games this past season, but with Coombs-McDaniel and Buie, he now has two high-caliber players and two terrific scorers on the bench. Both, however, need to embrace real change at Hofstra. Coombs-McDaniel left UConn in search of more playing time, but also after being arrested for marijuana possession. Buie, the most highly ranked recruit to land at Penn State, was suspended indefinitely in his final year there for a violation of team rules.

Larry Drew II, UCLA (from North Carolina): One of the most talked about transfers in recent memory, the Tar Heels' former piñata gets his do-over at Westwood. Certainly he has good timing. After a dismal and fractured season for UCLA, the Bruins landed top recruit Shabazz Muhammad, who, along with the Wear twins, give Drew plenty of options. Just how he handles them, and whether he can cut down on his turnovers, will be the biggest question mark -- one no doubt watched by folks in Los Angeles and Chapel Hill, with marked curiosity.

Luke Hancock, Louisville (from George Mason): The Cardinals rode their defensive tenacity all the way to the Final Four this past season -- mostly because their offense couldn’t take them out of Kentucky. Bringing in Hancock will help change that. He’s not a bona fide superstar, but he’s a solid and efficient scorer who most will remember for the 3-point dagger he dropped on Villanova two seasons ago in the NCAA tournament.

Ryan Harrow, Kentucky (from NC State): Harrow’s addition will go largely unnoticed amid the celebratory din with the arrival of Nerlens Noel, but Harrow could be the most critical part of the Wildcats’ rebuilding. Kentucky went 4-for-4 in recruiting -- four players signed, four ESPNU Top 100 players -- but none of those guys are point guards. Harrow is. More important, he’s a point guard with major minutes under his belt, having started 10 of his final 15 games at NC State.

Colton Iverson, Colorado State (from Minnesota): You have to feel for a kid like Iverson, who opted for Colorado State a year ago in part because Tim Miles recruited him out of high school. Now Miles is gone, off to Nebraska, and Iverson, with one season of college basketball left, has a new coach to adjust to in Larry Eustachy. Eustachy should be thrilled, of course, to have Iverson, a solid big man who averaged 5.4 points and 5.0 boards despite sharing time with Ralph Sampson III in his final season at Minnesota.

Wally Judge, Rutgers (from Kansas State): A former McDonald’s All American who chafed under Frank Martin, Judge gets a second chance with Mike Rice. He’s another feather in Rice’s recruiting cap, but will need to play hard without the disciplinary issues that rendered him ineffective at Kansas State. The Scarlet Knights could use a big body with experience like Judge’s in the Big East wars.

Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten, West Virginia (from La Salle and Dayton): Bob Huggins made no secret about his frustration with his young Mountaineer team this past season, bemoaning after they lost to Gonzaga in March about the team’s lack of defensive pride and offensive ability. And that was before Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant left. Murray and Staten could change that. Murray, a highly touted prospect out of high school, averaged 15.2 points and 7.7 rebounds for La Salle. Staten, meantime, is a solid, tough-minded point guard who averaged 5.4 assists in his one season at Dayton.

D.J. Newbill, Penn State (from Southern Miss): Here’s why Newbill is huge for coach Patrick Chambers: He’s from Philly. If Chambers is going to turn the Nittany Lions around, he has to make recruiting inroads in the state’s biggest city. Newbill helps with that. The fact that he’s also talented -- averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in his one season with Eustachy -- is a huge bonus for a Penn State team in dire need of skill infusion.

J.J. O’Brien and Dwayne Polee, San Diego State (from Utah and St. John’s): O’Brien, who elected to leave Utah after Jim Boylen was fired, is a solid scorer who averaged 6.4 points despite missing nine games with a broken foot. Polee, a gifted athlete, started 27 games for Steve Lavin as a freshman, but he was on the wrong coast. Polee is from Los Angeles, and the pull to be closer to home, where his mother has an undisclosed illness, was too much to overcome. Now Steve Fisher, who already had an impressive would-be mulligan season, has even more talent to keep the Aztecs moving forward.

Stacey Poole, Georgia Tech (from Kentucky): Poole, whose playing time headed south as the Wildcats brought in more talented freshmen, made the smart decision to head elsewhere where he will be needed. And Georgia Tech needs him. Poole, a top-50 player out of high school, will help Brian Gregory turn Tech in the right direction. An added plus: Poole’s younger brother, Solomon, 25th in the ESPNU top 60, has the Yellow Jackets on his short list.

Eric Wise, USC (from UC Irvine): Wise was looking to up his future stock, and Southern Cal, to up its future. Call this a match made in heaven. Wise averaged 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds for the Anteaters, and will be a much welcomed shot in the arm for the Trojans, who averaged an offensive 53 points in winning one Pac 12 game all season.

Oregon plans to unleash 40 minutes of hell

October, 20, 2011
Oregon coach Dana Altman managed to turn a makeshift Ducks roster in his first season into a team of CBI champions, and now he's apparently feeling comfortable enough with this current group to play his preferred style of defense, according to The Register Guard.
The Ducks lost Malcolm Armstead, who led the Ducks and set a UO record with 89 steals, but a more aggressive overall approach in man-to-man defense, and an increase in full-court pressure, could more than offset the steals that went with Armstead’s transfer to Wichita State.

"We'd like to press the whole game," Altman said.

"Last year, we were in a soft press most of the time."

Altman's emphasis on the fullcourt press speaks to the athleticism and depth that he believes the team now has, so that's a good sign for Ducks fans looking for the team to make a move up in the Pac-12.

To get an idea of what this Altman defense might look like, go back to his statements the last time he planned to install the defense at a new school. At that awkward press conference at Arkansas where just hours later he would decide the job wasn't for him and return to Creighton, here's what Altman had to say about defense:
Altman said he was excited to follow in the footsteps of Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson. Sutton, also a former Creighton coach, took Arkansas to the Final Four in 1978. Richardson's teams reached the Final Four in 1990, 1994 and 1995 and won the national title in 1994 with a style of play dubbed "40 Minutes of Hell."

The soft-spoken Altman described himself as "boring" -- but he was only talking about his personality.

"We press 40 minutes a game," he said. "It's not quite the old Nolan press. We change it up a little bit. We'll back it up to three-quarter and we trap in different spots. But we do press all the time."

Oregon players and the rest of the Pac-12 had better be ready. The Ducks are going to press, so opponents will have to be careful not to get lost in the trees on the court at Matthew Knight Arena.

Altman's going to be introducing his aggressive defense once again.

Oregon hangs onto Malcolm Armstead

August, 4, 2010
New Oregon coach Dana Altman recently gave a scholarship release to guard Malcolm Armstead, but the team's leading returning scorer has decided to remain with the Ducks for his junior season.

"Malcolm wanted to make sure the University of Oregon is the best situation for him, but after studying it, he really likes his teammates and likes the university," Altman said. "After going through all that with his parents, they analyzed everything and decided the University of Oregon was still the best."

Armstead's return was important given that Josh Crittle, Matthew Humphrey, Drew Wiley and Jamil Wilson had already transferred out in wake of Ernie Kent getting fired.

Armstead as a sophomore broke the school record for steals in a single season, led the team in assists and scored 10.3 points per game.

It couldn't have hurt that Altman had a previous relationship with Armstead, having recruited him as a junior college transfer while at Creighton.

"We’re glad he’s back," Altman said.