Don’t let Sunday’s loss sully what Wichita State accomplished this year


ST. LOUIS — Wichita State finishes the 2013-14 college basketball season at 35-1 and as one of the biggest historical question marks in recent college basketball history.

The No. 1 seed Shockers were the first team to go undefeated into the NCAA Tournament since UNLV in 1991 but many questioned how good Wichita State legitimately was, not only this season, but historically speaking.

The Shockers made the Final Four last season and lost to Louisville in a close contest, but head coach Gregg Marshall’s team only played five NCAA Tournament teams this season — Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and North Carolina Central — and many questioned how good the Shockers could actually be if they played such a weak schedule.

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Those questions were answered — in full — on Sunday afternoon when Wichita State lost on its final shot of the season against preseason No. 1 Kentucky.

Many talked about Kentucky potentially going 40-0 in the preseason; Wichita State nearly lived it.

A Shocker team led by a junior college transfer, a former walk-on and a vast array of under-recruited “mid-major” prospects came one missed three-pointer away from beating a team with seven All-Americans after those All-Americans threw their best combination in a 15-round heavyweight fight.

“That was an Elite 8 game,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game. “The winner of that game could have gone to the Final Four.”

College basketball hasn’t seen a mid-major storyline like this since Gordon Hayward nearly gave Butler a national championship in front of its home crowd in Indianapolis against powerhouse Duke.

Media members were buzzing in the hallways of the Scottrade Center on Sunday about the high caliber of play from both teams with many asking aloud if it was the greatest Round of 32 game ever played.

“It’s just tough to end such an amazing run like this,” sophomore guard Ron Baker said. “(We) lost to a very good team that came out and played well. And I feel like if they continue to play like that throughout the tournament, they will be tough to beat.”

Wichita State should feel no shame for going on college basketball’s biggest stage — with Sunday’s game being the only game televised at the time — and shooting 55 percent from the field and 47 percent from the three-point line. Like Butler, the Shockers came one shot away from beating one of college basketball’s biggest perennial juggernauts.

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“You know, it’s hard. You mention the finality of it. We won’t be able to coach these seniors anymore. But it’s been such a fun, enjoyable, magical season. I mean, it’s literally been a magic carpet ride that I mentioned a week or so ago. And to have it end is going to be something that we have to get used to,” Marshall said. “But I still think in retrospect we will look back at it and just be so proud. I hope that you’re around when we come back for the ceremony in 20 years or whatever it’s going to be and we can reminisce and it’s pretty special.”

Wichita State was not a “mid-major” program this season. Or last year for that matter. The Shockers only had six wins come within single digits and only one win went to overtime. The Shockers didn’t just beat people, they dominated them.

College basketball hasn’t seen a mid-major program sustain a two-year period of success like this since Butler made back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011. Now, Brad Stevens is coaching the Boston Celtics and the Bulldogs reside in the Big East.

With a tremendously loyal fan base and a blossoming program, Wichita State might be the next team to make a similar leap to the permanent big leagues of power conference play.

And they deserve it.

Cleanthony Early, Baker, Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet were household names this season — receiving every team’s best shot along the way — and they still held court 35 straight times.

“It’s bittersweet. I wanted it to end a little different, but I have to understand certain facts,” Early said. “I’m sure I’ll continue working really hard to be successful. I am sure my teammates will, and it is what it is.”

“I feel for their team and I feel for their coach,” Calipari said. “And Gregg, understand what he did to keep these guys on point was nothing short of miraculous. I have done it where I had to coach teams that were 26-0, 20-0. I’m telling you, each game there is more and more pressure to win.”

Wichita State might have lost to Kentucky on Sunday — and its perfect season to boot — but they should take pride in knowing that they gave one of college basketball’s most talented teams of all-time all that it could handle.

College basketball fans will be talking about this game for a long time.

“I don’t have any control over what folks want to believe or think that they saw. I know what’s in my heart, I know what I saw,” Marshall said. “I thought I saw a very high-level basketball game between two incredibly gifted teams, that one team won by one play, one basket, two points. And to take anything away from what these young men have done all season long, and more importantly, how they’ve done it, if they want to do that, so be it, good for them.”

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.