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.
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.”
“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.
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.”