Wichita Comes Knocking Again

Wichita State basketball has been knocking on the door for several years now. Head coach Gregg Marshall has led the program to six straight NCAA Tournaments where they’ve won a total of ten games. That made a surprise Final Four run in 2013 off the 9-line and on the flip side, an undefeated season in 2014 ended with a crushing Round of 32 loss to Kentucky. This year the smart money in Las Vegas has Wichita at 25-1 odds to win it all, on par with programs like North Carolina and Gonzaga for March. Has their hour arrived?

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This was a season of high expectations right from the outset, with a preseason national ranking of #7. While the Shockers aren’t quite at that level based on the projected 4-seed that ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi has them in as of Monday, this is still a team that’s gone 21-5 this season. They’ve adjusted well to their new home in the American Athletic Conference, having beaten fellow conference powers Cincinnati and Houston. And if Wichita wins their next three games, they’ll be set up for a titanic March 4 home game with Cincy to settle the regular season title .

The Shockers also have all the pieces in place from a personnel standpoint. They have a guard who can control tempo, critical in NCAA play. Landry Shamet can score and pass, averaging 15 points/5 assists. And he can hit from downtown, with a 45% success rate behind the arc. Any Wichita State run will have to keyed by Shamet.

Marshall can also rely on an athletic front line with Shaq Morris and Darrall Willis. They combine to average 24 points/11 rebounds per game. At 6’7” and 6’9” respectively, Wichita is not a big team, but they’re big enough with the way today’s game has evolved. Austin Reader is a lights-out three-point shooter that can further space the floor. It’s with good reason that Wichita is eighth in the nation in offensive efficiency.

They have personnel, coaching and experience. What’s not to like? There are some red flags and it’s start with a ranking of 75th in the country in defensive efficiency. It raises the question of whether Wichita can win on the inevitable night they don’t shoot the ball well. The resume also shows the best non-conference win coming at Baylor, with losses to Notre Dame and Oklahoma.

The losses aren’t as bad as they may look—this was before devastating injuries took the Irish from a Final Four contender to a non-NCAA team and before opposing coaches had enough film on OU’s Trae Young to slow him down. But this is the caliber of team Wichita is likely to be facing by the Round of 32 and certainly by the Sweet 16.

There is also a problem they share with most other teams and it’s that an opposing center, who’s really good at scoring in the low post, could feast on the relative lack of size. We’ll have to wait for Selection Sunday to see how this plays out—Wichita’s worst-case scenario would to be in the 4-5 seed range in the same region that might have Purdue—with 7’2” Isaac Haas as the 1-seed. Any hope of getting past the Sweet 16 would be gone in such a scenario.

If we’re talking Final Four, I’m skeptical, but as an admirer of this program, also hopeful. Marshall can make a case for being the best coach in the country outside the confines of Durham, NC. His teams are never scared of the heavyweights—even though they’ve lost to Kentucky a couple times in NCAA play, those games have been great battles, down to the wire. Wichita won’t blink when the bright lights come on. And those intangibles can matter more than anything once March goes Mad.