All the national love for Wichita State easily can be explained by how good the Shockers have been the last two seasons. They made it to the Final Four last season and have gone undefeated this season. Easy, right? Many of you have them in your Final Four. They’re the People’s Choice.
I have another explanation. With the NCAA tournament about to start, we are so grateful to be watching a team the networks haven’t shoved down our throats for years that we dissolve into tears of joy at the mere idea of a Wichita State. We are so happy to be watching a coach who isn’t named Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim or Roy Williams that we feel like donating to a worthy cause.
That’s not to say that the Shockers wouldn’t want to be Duke, Syracuse or North Carolina, that their players wouldn’t have jumped at the chance at a scholarship to a more acclaimed program or that Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall wouldn’t give his left arm for Krzyzewski’s $7.2 million salary.
It is to say: Thank you, Higher Power, for the opportunity to watch someone else play for a change.
The major conferences and the TV networks are like the military-industrial complex. If you turn on ESPN during the regular season, any regular season, there’s a good chance you’ll see Syracuse or Kansas or Ohio State, much like you’ll see “The Shawshank Redemption’’ or “Forrest Gump’’ if you flip to AMC.
Ten of Wichita State’s games were on CBS, ESPN or ESPN2 this season, which sounds substantial until you take into consideration that A) Duke was on the same networks 22 times and that B) the second-ranked Shockers have been ranked no lower than 16th this season.
I want to be clear here: I am tickled by Wichita State’s lack of face time. I’m glad it doesn’t have a Jabari Parker on its roster. It means that when I watch the tournament, I won’t feel like I’m seeing the same movie over and over again. But it’s not as if the Shockers sneaked up on anybody. Their run in the 2013 tournament captured the imagination of college hoops fans. The networks don’t know what to do with a Wichita State during the regular season, so the belief/exposure hasn’t been there this year.
The Shockers’ schedule didn’t feature a ranked opponent, and the basketball IQ of your average network programmer isn’t high enough to entertain the idea that they could be great in the vacuum of that schedule. So, to the networks, a Wichita State-Indiana State matchup in early February might as well have been played inside a hangar in Roswell, N.M. It’s as if that game never happened.
If the No. 1-seeded Shockers end up winning the national title, I wonder if anybody will feel just a bit embarrassed by the team’s relative lack of exposure. Silly me. When have TV people been the slightest bit embarrassed? They gave us Jerry Springer.
We’ve been told a million times that college basketball is all about the coaches. I think we agree that the cult of the college hoops coach is real. Coaches are the only constant. Players come and go, but coaches remain, steely-eyed, the calm hand on the tiller and all that. The networks need stars on whom to train their cameras. The only thing that doesn’t move in this era of one-and-done is the coach.
But think about it: What’s exciting about watching a guy in a suit stand on the sidelines? You might as well watch a hyena pacing in a cage. What did we do to deserve Boeheim’s sourpuss face on our screen every other possession? Watching Krzyzewski whine about a foul — that’s entertainment? I’m tired of looking at Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino and John Calipari coaching ’em up. I’d rather watch an industrial video.
But here comes Wichita State and Marshall, its coach, like a fresh breeze. I’m looking forward to seeing sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet, who was lightly recruited out of Rockford’s Auburn High School but is now the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker, who were both so calm and determined as the Shockers picked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State on the way to the Final Four last season. I’m looking forward to seeing the team that lost by four points to eventual champion Louisville.
I’m looking forward to something different.