Unbeaten Wichita State has rarest chance at history

Written By BY STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter Posted: 03/15/2014, 06:04pm
Array Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, far left, celebrates with his team after their victory over Indiana State in the an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Missouri Valley Conference men's tournament on Sunday, March 9, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce) ORG XMIT: MOBB110

In its opening appearance against Evansville in last weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St.  Louis, Wichita State did what few teams ever do: begin and end a giant, game-changing run with a pair of four-point plays.

The first, with the Shockers trailing by one, was converted by the team’s leading scorer and most talented player, Cleanthony Early. The second, capping a 38-16 tear in which this mid-major powerhouse was truly brilliant, came from lion-hearted point guard Fred VanVleet, the conference’s player of the year.

To witness Wichita State blowing the roof off the joint that day was to come around to the simple truth that — heck, yeah — this team belongs as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

On Selection Sunday, the Shockers will get that top seed, joining three major-conference powerhouses that all will be picked in more college basketball fans’ brackets to cut down the nets at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.

From there, the 34-0 Shockers — an underdog when they made it to the Final Four a year ago, and now more of a national curiosity — will try to do something few teams have ever done: win it all as an unbeaten.

This is the first time a team has entered the tournament without a single loss since UNLV did it in 1991. Only seven teams have finished the tourney with a perfect record — none since 32-0 Indiana in 1976. That group of Hoosiers had gone 31-1 during the 1974-75 season, entered their championship campaign ranked No. 1 and remained in the top spot all the way to the glorious end.

If people know one thing about these far-less-respected Shockers, it’s that they, too, have a perfect record. No other team can say that this March. It’s very exciting stuff.

As the postseason neared in 1976, on the other hand, the Hoosiers weren’t taking much pride in being unbeaten. They’d already experienced winning 31 straight, only to fall short of the national championship.

‘‘For us, I think it was just about the title,’’ said Scott May, who was national player of the year in 1975-76 before being drafted No. 2 overall by the Bulls. ‘‘The title is all that mattered to us. We had won the Big Ten three years in a row. We wanted that trophy.’’

That team was a superpower by any definition. Quinn Buckner was drafted five spots behind May in 1976. Bobby Wilkerson went four picks after Buckner. One year later, Kent Benson was drafted No.  1 overall.

The Shockers have a terrific foursome of their own in VanVleet, swingman Early and guards Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, but no one is going to confuse these guys for Kentucky walking off the team bus.

‘‘They’re an unselfish group. They play team basketball. They play both ends,’’ said their coach, Gregg Marshall. ‘‘I don’t know why I’m blessed with this type of group.’’

Unselfishness drives Marshall’s program. On Senior Day, VanVleet — a sophomore with a scoring average well in double figures — attempted only one shot so he could focus on setting up his older teammates.

When Sports Illustrated came knocking to put the Shockers on its cover early this month, Marshall didn’t know which player to pick for the photo shoot. He called his foursome into his office to draw straws — short straw gets to say cheese. Early, the one player in Marshall’s lineup with obvious NBA potential, wouldn’t have it, insisting that Cotton do the shoot because he hadn’t been receiving as much publicity.

‘‘I think that’s pretty cool and says a lot about the type of kids we’ve got,’’ Marshall said.

They’ll enter one of sports’ most celebrated events as the biggest story this season in college basketball. Not bad. If they somehow pull off what hasn’t been done in 38 years — six more wins, baby — they’ll bump one of the sport’s greatest-ever teams down a line in the history books.

‘‘We’ve had this [distinction] for so long,’’ May said. ‘‘It would be great for somebody else to do it.’’

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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