Wichita State basketball was the most recent midmajor college basketball team to take the nation by storm, reaching the 2013 Final Four. Now the Shockers have come blazing out of the gate in the 2014 season, starting 21-0, being ranked in the top five nationally and drawing talk about an undefeated season and a national championship.
Are these goals realistic, or is this just media hype. Let’s take a closer look at the basketball team that has put the city of Wichita on the map for the first time since it was a stopover in the 1989 comedy film Planes, Trains & Automobiles, with John Candy and Steve Martin.
If you look at the personnel for the Shockers, you see a guard-oriented team. Fred VanVleet is a sophomore point guard that averages five assists per game and shoots the ball well enough that his defenders have to respect the jump shot and not just play the pass. Ron Baker averages 13 ppg, and Tekele Cotton is capable of taking over if Baker has an off-night.
What separates Wichita from most teams is their ability to rebound the ball though. Even though this is not a big team, 6’8” Cleanthony Early leads up a group that grabs 40 rebounds a night, whereas most teams sit in the mid-to-high 30s. Darius Carter and Chadrack Lufile are role players who know their job is to clean up the glass.
Baker, VanVleet and Early all shoot the three-ball well enough to make it a regular part of the Wichita offense. Even though the Shockers likely won’t win games because of their shooting behind the arc, it’s unlikely they would lose because of it either.
How will this translate on the court against the big boys? That’s always the toughest thing to figure with midmajor teams. Wichita has quality wins over BYU, St. Louis and Tennessee. St. Louis leads the Atlantic 10, and the Vols and Cougars are going to be in the hunt for NCAA Tournament bids. Wichita has played good defense and rebounded the ball well in these games.
This clearly suggests the Shockers are no record-padding fluke. Just as clearly, we don’t know how they’ll match up with Arizona, Syracuse, Michigan or Kansas, four teams that would deserve to be ahead of Wichita in any national pecking order as of today.
We’ve got time to sort all that out in March. For now, we’ve got a program with a little bit of history, a run to the Final Four under its belt and a real shot at going into the NCAA Tournament undefeated, now that Creighton has left the Missouri Valley Conference for the greener pastures of the Big East. Now it’s just about the Shockers bringing that defense and rebounding to the table each night and not getting bored as they wait for their ultimate test.