Train don’t run out of Wichita. Lessen you’re a hog or a cattle.”
–Owen, Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Wichita has come a long way since the redneck driver Owen picked up John Candy and Steve Martin outside a motel in the great movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles and gave them the bad news they would have to go all the way to “Stubbville” to find a train. Today, the train most definitely is running out of Wichita and it’s the undefeated locomotive known as the Wichita State Shockers basketball program.
The Shockers capped off their perfect year by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Sunday, easily beating Indiana State 83-69 and will enter the NCAA Tournament at 34-0. Wichita is the first team to go into March Madness with a perfect record since UNLV did it in 1991.
If Wichita completes the dream and wins the national title they would be the first unbeaten champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. And the Shockers would be the first time from a non-power conference to cut down the nets on Monday night since UNLV pulled it off in 1990.
*The core four consists of Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet in the backcourt, along with Cleanthony Early at forward. These four draw significantly more minutes than anyone else on the roster. VanVleet is the playmaker of the group and Anthony is the team’s leading scorer at 16 ppg.
*This is a young backcourt—while Anthony provides senior leadership, both VanVleet and Baker are sophomores. You can argue that given both were crucial to the team’s Final Four run in 2013, they are no ordinary sophomores, and that’s a fair argument. It’s also fair to wonder if this inexperience gives away an advantage midmajor teams usually have on the power conferences, who see key players leaving after one or two years.
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*While the schedule wasn’t good—Creighton’s leaving the Missouri Valley for the newly revamped Big East left a big hole in the MVC—Wichita did dominate the best teams it had to face in league play. Indiana State was clearly the second-best team in the Missouri Valley and the Shockers not only swept the three games, but played excellent defense in all three and won twice by double digits.
*Our flip side is this—Indiana State, in spite of being 23-10, is not on the radar of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi for making the NCAA field. The best non-conference wins came against St. Louis, Tennessee and BYU and none of the wins were particularly dominant. All three are nice teams, but Wichita clearly has its sights set on bigger game, and we have no inkling as to how they would fare.
*Moving back to the positive, though Wichita only beat St. Louis 70-65, the Shockers did dominate the glass in that December game. And they beat BYU in spite of shooting 6-of-28 from three-point range. Thus, we can conclude that in spite of being smallish, Wichita can outrebound other perimeter-oriented teams, and they can beat the kind of team they might meet in a second-round game even if the shooting goes cold. That might not tell us if the Shockers can beat Kansas, but neither point is insignificant in tournament play.
Ultimately, there’s plenty of time starting Sunday night and into next week to parse Wichita State and all the other high seeds for flaws. Right now, it’s appropriate to just celebrate what’s been achieved. Every time the kids from Wichita State laced up their sneakers to play a basketball game, they ended up exchanging celebratory high-fives a couple hours later. Let them take a week and just bask in that glow. Yes Owen, this train is running out of Wichita and it has Dallas (site of the 2014 Final Four) on its mind as a destination.