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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.

RELATED: K-State’s Marcus Foster hasn’t forgotten or forgiven teams that pulled offers

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.”

RELATED: How borderline Division I recruits fight for scholarships in July

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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.

RELATED: A Division III transfer is being recruited by Michigan?

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.”

NEW PODCAST: NBA Draft deadline winners and losers

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
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With the change to the NCAA deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA Draft moving from mid-April to May 25, college programs and fan bases across the country anxiously awaited Wednesday night’s deadline for news on players still going through the decision-making process.

With the dust having settled Thursday morning, the NBC Sports College Basketball Talk crew (Rob Dauster, Raphielle Johnson and Scott Phillips) got together to discuss the winners and losers. Among those discussed are Oregon, four Big Ten teams (Indiana, Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin), and USC. It should be noted that Maryland was discussed before news of Justin Jackson’s commitment broke, so their front court looks a little different due to that.

We also touched on our updates to the Top 25, with the Boilermakers making a move up in the rankings, and Marcus Lee’s decision to transfer from Kentucky. As always, you can either click “play” in the Soundcloud player below or listen via iTunes or the Stitcher app. Thanks for listening!

In-state rivals BYU, Utah to meet again in 2017

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 27: Head coach Larry Krystkowiak of the Utah Utes gestures to his team during the first half of their game against the Arizona Wildcats at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on February 27, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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The series between BYU and Utah has been an intense one, with the two programs meeting a total of 257 times with the Cougars holding a slim 129-128 advantage. But after last season’s meeting, a comfortable Utah win mired by the ejection of BYU’s Nick Emery for striking guard Brandon Taylor late in the second half, threatened the future of the series.

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak wanted to call a halt to things, and sure enough it was announced in January that the Cougars and Runnin’ Utes wouldn’t play each other during the 2016-17 season. But the “break” will only last one season, as Utah announced Thursday that the two teams will meet in Provo during the 2017-18 season.

Athletic director Chris Hill stated in a release that also announced non-conference series with Butler and Xavier set to begin this season that the game will be played in either November or December 2017.

Hopefully the one-year hiatus will be the only hiccup in this series, one that began way back in 1909 and managed to endure changes such as the run of conference realignment that landed Utah in the Pac-12 and BYU in the WCC. As for those games against Butler (November 28) and Xavier (December 10), Utah will host the Bulldogs and visit the Musketeers this season with the return games for both series to be played during the 2017-18 season.

News of the resumption of the BYU/Utah series was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Maryland lands commitment from four-star forward

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon instructs his team during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Hawaii in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
(AP Photo/Young Kwak)
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No coach in the country has had a better 24 hours than Mark Turgeon of Maryland.

The morning after Melo Trimble announced that he will be returning to College Park for his junior season, Turgeon landed a commitment from Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward from Las Vegas by way of Canada. Jackson is a top 50 player in the class of 2016.

Jackson should immediately help the Terps replenish a front court that was decimated by early entry. A versatile athlete with a ridiculous wingspan and a still-developing perimeter game, Jackson will likely spend his freshman season playing a power forward role, maybe even as a small-ball five.

This fits perfectly with the roster that Maryland has for next season. Not only will Trimble be flanked by freshman Anthony Cowan, a now-healthy Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, the Terps add freshman wings Kevin Heurter and Micah Thomas as well as Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill. They needed depth up front, particularly at the four.

And remember, when Maryland had their most success with Trimble — his freshman year — they went small and spread the floor with Jake Layman at the four. Jackson may not have quite the impact that Layman did that season, but he can play that role for the Terps.

Alec Peters withdraws from NBA Draft, will he transfer?

Alec Peters, Valparaiso (Getty Images)
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Valparaiso forward Alec Peters became the final player to announce that he has withdrawn from the NBA Draft on Thursday, waiting until the day after the deadline to make it official.

The 6-foot-9 Peters was one of the best mid-major players in the country this past season, averaging 18.5 points and 8.0 boards while shooting 44.0 percent from three for the Horizon League champs, a team many considered to be the best mid-major team in the sport.

Here’s why Peters’ decision is interesting: He’s a junior that will be eligible as a graduate transfer, meaning that if he leaves Valpo — like Bryce Drew, the coach that recruited him, who left for Vanderbilt — he will be able to play elsewhere in 2016-17.

How many top 25 programs could use a 6-foot-9 forward that can score in the post and posted shooting splits of 50.5/44.0/85.0? Hint: The answer is all of them.

Will he leave school?

Looking Forward: Here’s what the Pac-12 has in store for 2016-17

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 20:  Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks drives against Dillon Brooks #24 and Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 20, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Pac-12 over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. The returns of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey make Oregon the early favorites: Losing two quality contributors in Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin will have an impact on Dana Altman’s Ducks, but by no means will Oregon fall off after winning the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earning the program’s first-ever one seed last season. With Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey withdrawing from the NBA Draft, the Ducks have the depth and talent needed to repeat (or even exceed) last year’s achievements. Brooks will be an early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year, and options such as Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and Casey Benson will be heard from as well. Add in a recruiting class that includes Kavell Bigby-Williams, Payton Pritchard and M.J. Cage, and Oregon has enough to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1939.

2. Arizona reloads…and is absolutely loaded on the perimeter: There were some who wondered just how good of a class Arizona would be able to put together, as they landed just one commitment during the early signing period. But Sean Miller never panicked, and we all saw why in the spring. The Wildcats reeled in three high-level guards in Kobi Simmons, Terrance Ferguson and Rawle Alkins, and they also grabbed juco transfer Keanu Pinder and four-year transfers Talbott Denny (Lipscomb; eligible immediately) and Dylan Smith (UNC Asheville; will sit out next season). That early signee (Lauri Markannen) is a highly regarded prospect in his own right, and the return of Allonzo Trier provides a boost as well. With the amount of talent on this roster, Arizona can win a third Pac-12 regular season title in the last four seasons.

3. Needing to bounce back, UCLA welcomes a highly regarded freshman class: UCLA also cleaned up on the recruiting trail, but unlike Arizona the Bruins are looking to bounce back from a year in which they finished below .500. That won’t fly in Westwood, where the only banners that hang are those of the national title variety (and they have 11 of those), so the pressure’s on Steve Alford and company to make things right. What helps is that point guard Lonzo Ball and stretch forward T.J. Leaf can both be immediate impact players, and Ike Anigbogu can help them defensively in the post. UCLA’s returnees, most notably Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, should benefit from these additions.

4. Oregon State, USC look to build on last season’s success: Of the seven Pac-12 team to reach the NCAA tournament, the Beavers (since 1990) and Trojans (since 2011) had gone the longest without an NCAA appearance. Neither stayed long, but getting to the Big Dance represented an important step forward for the two programs. The question facing both Wayne Tinkle and Andy Enfield: how do they ensure that their programs continue to make positive strides? Oregon State has to account for the loss of do-everything guard Gary Payton II, but their personnel losses pale in comparison to a USC team that bids farewell to both Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic. There’s still talent for Enfield to work with, but the task became a little tougher thanks to those two NBA decisions.

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, UCLA: Not to overlook Ike Anigbogu and Kobe Paras, but Ball and Leaf are the marquee names in UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class. Ball is one of the nation’s best point guards (and players, period), and his arrival should make things easier for the Bruins offensively. As for Leaf, he’s a skilled forward who can score from just about anywhere on the court.
  • Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz’s recruiting story is one that’s been told many times over, as through hard work the DeMatha Catholic guard went from a member of the JV team to a McDonald’s All-American in two years. With the Huskies losing Andrew Andrews and Dejounte Murray from their perimeter rotation, Fultz will have to have an immediate impact if the Huskies are to move up the Pac-12 standings.
  • Arizona’s loaded freshman class: Of Arizona’s seven newcomers four are freshmen, with three (Rawle Alkins, Terrance Ferguson and Kobi Simmons) being five-star perimeter prospects. And power forward Lauri Markannen is also a highly regarded prospect. The additions should make for an interesting (and talented) mix, and how Sean Miller allocates minutes on the perimeter will be fun to observe as well.
  • Kavell Bigby-Williams, Oregon: Last year it was Chris Boucher who arrived in Eugene as a highly regarded junior college transfer, and he had a major impact on a team that won the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. This time around it’s Bigby-Williams who arrives via junior college, giving Oregon additional front court depth alongside Boucher, Jordan Bell and freshman M.J. Cage. And after blocking nearly six shots per game last season, Bigby-Williams can make scoring around the basket on the Ducks even tougher than it was a season ago.
  • JaQuori McLaughlin, Oregon State: McLaughlin is expected to be an impact addition for Oregon State this season, as the Beavers look to account for the loss of Gary Payton II. What changes things is the transfer of Derrick Bruce, who appeared to be in line for a noticeable increase in minutes after serving as the sixth man as a freshman. His departure puts even more on the shoulders of McLaughlin, who along with senior Malcolm Duvivier appear to be the answers at the point for Oregon State.
  • Shannon Evans and Sam Cunliffe, Arizona State: Landing Romello White gave Arizona State a nice late recruiting boost, as he joins a class that was already good thanks to the presence of Cunliffe. A top 40 recruit according to Rivals.com, the Washington native has the skills needed to make an immediate impact in Tempe. Add in Evans, who was a standout on head coach Bobby Hurley’s NCAA tournament team at Buffalo in 2014-15, and the Sun Devils have two perimeter newcomers who can make some waves in the Pac-12 next year.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, USC: Had these two decided to return for their senior seasons, the Trojans had the skill and experience needed to possibly contend in the Pac-12. But with both leaving for the professional ranks, Andy Enfield and his staff have two noticeable holes in the starting lineup to fill. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, thanks to the combination of remaining pieces and newcomers, but these losses definitely hurt.
  • Derrick Bruce, Oregon State: As noted above Bruce was in line to earn a greater role in 2016-17 due to Gary Payton II’s departure, so his decision to transfer caught some by surprise. The loss of Bruce means that the aforementioned tandem of JaQuori McLaughlin and Malcolm Duvivier will likely be the guys Wayne Tinkle looks to at the point.
  • Brekkott Chapman, Utah: With the departures of Jordan Loveridge and Jakob Poeltl, Chapman was expected to play a key role for the Runnin’ Utes in 2016-17. Well, he decided that a change of scenery was needed, leaving Larry Krystkowiak with another hole in his front court rotation to fill. Utah did pick up a couple late front court commitments, and rising junior Kyle Kuzma is back as well, so this is a decision they should be able to manage.
  • Dejounte Murray, Washington: Murray was one of two Washington freshmen to make the move to the NBA, with forward Marquese Chriss being the other. But while Chriss’ draft prospects have improved throughout the spring, Murray’s possibilities haven’t been as easy to pinpoint. His departure leaves Lorenzo Romar with another backcourt contributor to replace, joining the graduated Andrew Andrews, but Markelle Fultz will help mitigate the impact of Murray’s departure.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Jerod Haase, Stanford: There was only one head coaching change in the Pac-12 this offseason, with Jerod Haase replacing Johnny Dawkins on The Farm. Haase racked up 80 wins in four seasons at UAB, with his third season including a win over Iowa State in the NCAA tournament, before deciding to return to the state he grew up in. The cupboard isn’t bare in Palo Alto either, with Marcus Allen, Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis among the players returning. The key for the Cardinal: stay healthy. Stanford was hit hard by injuries last season, including expected starting point guard Robert Cartwright being lost to a broken arm before the season began, which did them no favors in the Pac-12. This was a good hire for Stanford, and the resources are there for Haase to get the Cardinal back to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

F Dillon Brooks, Oregon (Player of the Year)
G Lonzo Ball, UCLA
G Terrance Ferguson, Arizona
G Allonzo Trier, Arizona
F Ivan Rabb, California

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

1. Oregon: The Ducks lost Cook and Benjamin, but with Brooks and Boucher leading a deeper roster they can be even better in ’16 – ’17.
2. Arizona: Sean Miller won’t lack for talented options on the perimeter, so expect the Wildcats to bounce back.
3. UCLA: The Bruins will be good, but how good they are will ultimately depend on their commitment on defense.
4. California: Rabb’s return helps, and with their perimeter options Cal could be more fluid offensively next year.
5. USC: The Trojans return some key pieces, led by Jordan McLaughlin, but losing Jacobs and Jovanovic hurts.
6. Colorado: The Josh Scott era comes to an end, but George King and Xavier Johnson will help with the adjustment.
7. Utah: The loss of Poeltl and some key seniors hurts, but Kuzma, Bonam and Jayce Johnson are all on board.
8. Oregon State: OSU can make a 2nd straight tourney trip, but the point guard spot is an early concern.
9. Washington: With the arrival of Markelle Fultz and last year’s group a year older, this spot could prove low.
10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils brought in some talented newcomers, but they may be a year away in the Pac-12.
11. Stanford: Back to full strength after an injury-riddled ’15 -’16, but no Rosco Allen hurts offensively.
12. Washington State: They’ll have an all-conference caliber player in Josh Hawkinson, but it’ll be a struggle.