Shock to the system
I recently asked three student-athletes of the La Salle University basketball team what they knew about Wichita and the state in which it existed, since Wichita State University was their next opponent.
Silence. Blank stares. Blinks.
Finally, one of them said, "We saw one of those Which Wich places today. Is that it?"
No, that's a sandwich chain.
And before you can consider yourself truly ready for this Final Four, you need to know the answers to some basic questions about The Cinderella Who Leaves Bruises, the ninth-seeded WSU Shockers.
What's a Shocker?
A shocker is a person who shocks, or harvests, wheat. In the old days, a lot of WSU students did it in the summer to earn their tuition money, so the name stuck. A shocker is also when your kid brings your car back full of gas.
What's with that weird mascot?
That's WuShock, a very angry, buffed stalk of wheat. He wasn't always that angry, but he's plenty disgruntled now, perhaps because the University of Kansas has refused to play Wichita State in hoops for 20 years now. There's nothing that strikes fear into opposing teams like an angry collection of grain.
Is Wichita the answer to any good trivia questions?
Q: What's the biggest city in Kansas?
A: Wichita, since Kansas City is mostly in Missouri. Wichita is also the original home of Barry Sanders, Kirstie Alley and Pizza Hut.
What's Tim Tebow got to do with all this?
Tebow was on a plane that was refueling in Wichita when he saw the Shockers team bus, just after they made the Sweet 16, and asked coach Gregg Marshall if he could come on board and address the team. They haven't lost since.
Has a No. 9 seed ever won it all?
No. And neither has Wichita State. Last time it made the Final Four was 1965, when Coach Marshall was 2.
Why do their players have to go into debt to play?
They don't, but star point guard Malcolm Armstead wanted to play for Marshall so bad he took out student loans and paid full tuition just to do it. He even had to take a part-time job as a car runner for Lubbers Ford in town.
"I think I got $12 a car or something like that," says Armstead, who was the Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional. "All the bills are back at my house in [Florence] Alabama."
Armstead has a tattoo on his right arm that reads: "Envy My Past," but there's not much to envy: star high school player who didn't get an offer after graduating, signed at a juco, got a spot at Oregon, didn't get along there, sat out a year and begged Marshall for a spot. The Shockers had no scholarships left, so he took on debt to do it.
"Sometimes in life, you have to take a gamble," he says. "I wanted to go somewhere where I could play in the NCAA tournament and win."
How does the football team do?
They don't. WSU gave up football in 1986. Most famous Wichita State linebacker: Bill Parcells, 1958-59.
Who was the most famous Wichita lineman? Glen Campbell?
Wichita people hate that pun.
Marshall looks just like somebody. Who is it?
French President Francois Hollande.
What's with all the kids in the locker room?
Marshall lets any kid in attendance into the locker room after home wins. "Sometimes, there'll be 100 kids in there," says assistant coach Chris Jans. "So many that nobody else can get in. It's great fun. "
What makes them so good?
They live, sleep and breathe to rebound. As the team's 6-foot-8 star forward, Cleanthony Early, says, "If you rebound, you play. If you don't rebound, you don't play."
They were fourth in the nation in rebounding this season, even with only one center on the 13-man roster. They play murderous defense. Their team motto is "Play Angry," and they seem even angrier than WuShock. They block shots as though they were personal insults. They blocked nine in the upset of No. 2-seeded Ohio State.
How do you say Cleanthony?
Say it like it's CleAnthony. Early won't capitalize the A because his mother didn't. "People always mess it up," says Cleanthony. "They say Clean-Thony. I mean, really? It seems pretty evident to me that there's an 'Anthony' in there somewhere." Early's father was named Cleveanthony, but he says he hopes to have kids and name the first one "Cle" and the second one "Anthony."
How many "Wichita State Takes Early Lead" headlines do they see?
Wichita people hate that pun.
Is it true one of them risks his life to play?
Yes. Starting forward Carl Hall has a heart condition that gives him fainting spells. He had to quit basketball and work in a factory for two years while doctors figured it out. They finally cleared him to play, but only at his own risk. Hall himself has said, "I'm taking a chance by touching that court."
No. But he did recently cut off his long dreadlocks and send them home to his mother in a box. And he wears glasses.
If Marshall is such a hotshot coach, how come he's still at Wichita State?
Because he likes it there. He's turned down lots of offers, but when you're making seven figures, you live on the golf course, your wife and teenage kids have a million friends, "Why mess with happy?" he asks.
What do those signs mean: "100% Cotton"? Something to do with the uniform?
No, those signs are in celebration of the Shockers' 6-2 guard Tekele Cotton, who plays more like 6-9. It was his crucial trey in the final minutes of the Ohio State game and his steal of an offensive rebound from a 6-9 Buckeyes player in the final minute and a half that helped seal the deal.
Guess they don't hate that pun.
Is it true the players have to buy their own uniforms?
No, but the school does. They have no uniform deal, unlike most Division I schools.
How many people thought Wichita State would make the Final Four?
Not many. Only 3.3 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets thought they would make the Sweet 16. Only 0.24 percent thought they'd make it to the Final Four. Only 0.03 percent think they can win it all. If they do, they'll be the first modern mid-major to win it all.
Guess that'd be a Shocker, right?
Wichita people hate that pun most of all.