published Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

No shocker if Wichita reaches Final Four again

Wichita State's Cleanthony Early celebrates after hitting a 3-point basket against Evansville during a first-half rally of an NCAA college basketball game in Wichita, Kan., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014.
Wichita State's Cleanthony Early celebrates after hitting a 3-point basket against Evansville during a first-half rally of an NCAA college basketball game in Wichita, Kan., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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This is part of Mark Wiedmer's annual series on teams with the potential to make the basketball Final Four.

Louisville Cardinals basketball dynasty a possibility

Arizona's Cactus Cats could win it all

No 40-0 breeze for Kentucky, but long run possible

Syracuse ready to return to Final Four

His aptly named Shockers having just fallen by four frustrating points to eventual national champion Louisville in last spring's NCAA semifinals inside the Georgia Dome, Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall looked not backward but forward.

"This is just the beginning for us," he said almost defiantly, his eyes still red from tears. "A lot of good young players in that locker room. All they're talking about right now is working hard this summer and getting better."

Ten months later, the fourth-ranked Shockers still haven't dropped a game since that Louisville loss. Now 23-0 for this season heading into Wednesday's tough Missouri Valley Conference game at Indiana State, WSU is one of two remaining major college unbeatens -- joining top-ranked Syracuse.

If the Shockers can maintain that perfection for another seven days, they just might be on their way to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"Now we have the week that everybody's been talking about," Marshall said last weekend as he looked ahead to both the Indiana State game and a Saturday visit to Northern Iowa. "Two of the best teams in our league, both on the road. We's just got to go out and play really great basketball."

The schedule has been average to date. A 70-61 home victory over unranked Tennessee may prove to be the Shockers' best win at the end of the regular season. But ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi is willing to pencil in Wichita as a top seed if it can remain undefeated until the tournament.

"There is almost no scenario in which [WSU] is unbeaten and not a No. 1 seed," Lunardi told the Wichita Eagle. "You'd be talking about an unbeaten, [2013] Final Four team."

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin believes the Shockers can return to this year's Final Four no matter where they're seeded when March Madness begins.

"They play a physical brand of defense without fouling," Martin said. "They rebound well. They've got tough kids and they've got really good guard play. And with the experience of having been there last year, they won't be fazed by the big stage. Anything can happen for any team when the tournament begins. Wichita proved that last year, so they absolutely can get there again this year."

The Shockers almost shocked the college basketball universe last season because of Cleanthony Early, a 6-foot-8 junior college transfer who lit up Louisville for 24 points and 10 rebounds. Now a senior, he leads WSU in both scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg).

Early is ably backed in scoring by redshirt sophomore guard Ron Baker, whose stat line reads 12.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and three assists per game. Just behind those two are point guard Fred VanVleet, whose 12.1 scoring average is topped in importance by his 5.3 assists. He also averages nearly two steals a game.

Throw in the unsung Tekele Cotton, who scored 19 against the Volunteers and averages 9.4 points, and 6-7 juco transfer Darius Carter, who grabbed 14 boards against the Vols, and there's little wonder why the Shockers are pulling in close to nine more rebounds a game than their opponents (39.8 to 31.1) while winning by more than 15 an outing (74.7 to 59.5).

In many ways, the Tennessee win was almost a perfect example of the Shockers' strengths, given that they topped the physical Vols by five rebounds, held them to under 39 percent from the field and totaled three more steals and four more blocks.

"Their bigs defend and rebound, they share the ball well and they attack you every chance they get," Martin said. "It's a really good team."

And WSU hits 73 percent of its foul shots, which means trouble for anyone who can't guard the Shockers' penetration without fouling them come the tournament.

"They play so hard and they're so active," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said last weekend after losing at Wichita. "They've got so many pieces."

Until last spring, the belief nationally was that Marshall never quite had enough pieces to make a lot of noise on a national stage, despite a 356-153 overall record at Winthrop and WSU. Now that's changing, helped mightily by last year's Final Four run and this season's perfect record to date, though it is also making it far more difficult for the coach to schedule Final Four-caliber teams in the regular season.

"My job is to make us nationally relevant," Marshall told CBS Sports last month. "I think we're accomplishing that, whether anyone [from a BCS conference] will play us or not."

Come the NCAA tournament, those teams won't have a choice. Instead, they would do well to soak up the thoughts of Louisville's Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who said after last year's Final Four win over the Shockers: "I don't think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State."

And that was before they spent last summer getting better.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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