How can Wichita State build on the two best years in program history?

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The NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event in the United States, and if it wasn’t for the unification of ‘Murica in support of the stars and stripes at the World Cup this past June, I think that you would be hard-pressed to find anything that can hold a vice-grip on the ever-dwindling attention span of an entire nation of sports fans for a month like March Madness can.

But while you are filling out your brackets and wildly cheering on that No. 13 seed, hoping a team without a single player that you can name pulls off the upset, the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament can be a fickle beast for the people participating in it.

One tough draw, one off night, and an entire season’s body of work can be forgotten in the annals of history. Deep tournament runs and early tourney exits are remembered much more vividly than, say, a regular season conference title. A 25-win season might get a coach a raise. A trip to the Sweet 16 will get him a better job. The tourney is always holding trump cards.

Case in point: Wichita State.

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This past season, the Shockers put together arguably the single-greatest regular season of all-time. They entered the NCAA tournament at 34-0 after steamrolling through league play with very few real challenges while posting the best regular season record in the history of college basketball. But thanks to No. 8-seed Kentucky, a preseason top five team that didn’t figure out how to play together until the night before the SEC tournament, the Shockers were sent packing without reaching the second weekend of the tournament.

All it took was one game — one game where Wichita State played as well as they had all season, losing one of the best-played, most entertaining games you’ll watch — to turn a historical year into a footnote for a team that didn’t make the Sweet 16.

“It was really great to go 35-0, that’s a really great accomplishment,” star guard Ron Baker told NBCSports at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy last month. “But the regular season is kind of a season in itself. When you get to the tournament, it almost feels like a whole nother year. A different season. And for us, that result was pretty disappointing.”

Wichita State had gone almost a full year in between losses, and for Baker, it was difficult for him to process that such a successful season had come to such an abrupt halt. “I reflected on it a lot,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until the sting from the upset wore off that he was truly able to appreciate what he and his team were able to do. “Once the season’s over and you sit down for a couple days, you slow down and think about what you accomplished.

“And it’s pretty phenomenal, especially when you look back in history. We’re the only team to go 35-0. It’s been special.”

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“We had an amazing year,” point guard Fred Van Vleet told NBCSports during a break in the action at the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey in June. “We don’t really define our season off of that game.”

That appreciation wasn’t there while the Shockers were in the middle of their run, however. They weren’t thinking about what an undefeated season would mean historically or how they had a chance to get their names in the record books. They were focused on winning, on doing the things that it took to make sure that they kept that ‘0’ in their loss column.

They were on a mission.

“It was really hard to enjoy it during the season,” Baker said. “There’s practice every day. Weights, lifting. And we’re all competitive. [We did our] best to have fun with it.”

The season before Wichita State made a run at perfection, they were the latest in a long line of cinderellas from the mid-major ranks that traipsed their way through their region and into the Final Four.

And they did it despite the fact that their regular season ended in frustration.

In 2012-2013, the Shockers started the season 19-2, going 8-1 in Missouri Valley play and climbing to No. 15 in the country before losing three straight and five of their last ten regular season games. They wound up in the 8-9 game in the same bracket as Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed. But between a hot-shooting second half that sparked an upset of the ‘Zags and a beneficial draw in the later rounds that gave the Shockers matchups with La Salle and Ohio State, Marshall’s band of misfits made it all the way to the Final Four. And if it wasn’t for Louisville guard Tim Henderson’s heroics, they might have found themselves in the national title game.

It creates a weird dynamic, as the Shockers may end up being better remembered for a season in which they struggled through February and early March than for the year where they won their first 35 games. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but the casual fan will likely put more stock in winning four games on national television in the NCAA tournament than they will 34 games on ESPN3 in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Springfield, Missouri.

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It also creates expectations. Baker is a redshirt sophomore. He’s entering his fourth year in the program, during which time the Shockers have made three NCAA tournaments, won two regular season titles and a MVC tournament title, reached a Final Four and earned a No. 1 seed with an undefeated regular season. Prior to his arrival, the Shockers had made one NCAA tournament since 1988.

What happens if the Shockers “only” win the conference and fail to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season?

“If we would’ve done that six years ago at Wichita State, they would have been really pleased,” Baker said. “Now, to make the tournament, it’s expected of us,” but to listen to the two Shockers stars speak, those expectations and that notoriety are what drive them.

“[Success brings] a little bit more popularity, people recognize you. Respect as well,” Van Vleet said. “Those two things are nice. With that comes a lot more work that you’ve got to put in to keep getting better. You don’t want to plateau out.”

What “a lot more work” includes has been early morning workouts for Van Vleet, Baker and senior guard Tekele Cotton, as they spent part of their summer waking up at 6:30 a.m. to workout before coaching at Wichita State’s summer basketball camp. And that would be just the first or two or three workouts on a typical day.

“I’ve never done that before,” Van Vleet said with a laugh. “I’m not a morning guy.”

For Baker, that work included improving his mid-range game, floaters and 8-10 foot finishes, as well as his ability to create separation off the bounce and get to the rim on straight line drives. For Van Vleet, he’s been focused on improving his athleticism and his ability to be a scorer, which is something that both players will need to improve upon without Cleanthony Early around to shoulder the scoring load.

And if they can do that, the Shockers should once again be a team capable of making the Sweet 16 and advancing further, but that won’t leave them satisfied.

“Honestly, we look at [Gonzaga, Butler and VCU] and see what they’ve built, and I’m sure Coach Marshall feels that he wants to build something like that, but the goal is always a national championship,” Van Vleet said. “Make it to that game, play in that game, win that game.

“I would be lying to say that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season.”

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.

South Carolina fans raise money to send “Gamecock Jesus” to Final Four

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South Carolina fans are sending one of their most recognizable compatriots to represent them this weekend.

Gamecock Jesus is heading to the Final Four.

South Carolina super fan Carlton Thompson is following the Gamecocks to Glendale as his fellow fans have raised over $7,500 to send the man known as “Gamecock Jesus” to Arizona for the team’s Final Four meeting with Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Thompson’s long hair, beard and presence at South Carolina games, even in lean times, earned him his nickname and apparently a following fervent enough to foot the bill for quite the trip.

“I’ve always dreamed it would be like this,” Thompson said last week about fan support at Gamecock games to the Post and Courier. “For years and years, it was so sparse with the crowds at the games. But once they started winning, the crowds started coming.”

Thompson is a 63-year-old VA hospital nurse, and has been attending South Carolina games for nearly 50 years.

Maryland’s Melo Trimble declares for the NBA Draft

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Melo Trimble’s career as a Maryland Terrapin is coming to an end. The junior guard is declaring for the NBA Draft and will sign with an agent.

“I am confident and excited to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Trimble said in a release. “I am proud of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish these past three seasons at Maryland. I developed many great relationships and friendships and together we able to create some very special moments for Maryland basketball. I want to thank Coach Turgeon for all of his support. He always believed in me. He challenged me and really helped in the development of my overall game. I am a more complete basketball player because of Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff. To stay at home and attend the University of Maryland is the best decision that I ever made and it was truly special to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. Maryland will always be home.”

There was no better winner in college basketball the last three years than Melo. He changed the trajectory of Mark Turgeon’s program, winning 79 games in three years and ending his career 30-8 in games decided by six points or less. As a junior, Trimble and the Terps earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA tournament, but they lost in the first round to Xavier. It was the only time in Trimble’s career that he didn’t reach the Sweet 16.

“Melo Trimble is a winner,” Mark Turgeon said on twitter. “Humble, hard-working, dedicated. Words can’t express what he’s done for our program. Always #StayMelo!”