INDIANAPOLIS – We’re here in the Wichita State locker room, where they use one word a lot.
Let’s go to the guy sitting over there in the locker, Markis McDuffie. “Our motto for Wichita State,” he is saying, “is play angry.”
Next to him Shaquille Morris. “Playing angry really means wanting it more than anybody else.”
Down the way, Conner Frankamp. Angry? “I think you kind of have to be in this program.”
Yes, the Shockers are good and ticked off. They are also 31-4 and getting ready to play Kentucky Sunday in the second round. They are also the 10th seed in the South Regional – 31 wins and all – and don’t even get them started about that.
“We were 19th in the country, and we get a 10th seed?” Rashard Kelly is asking.
“To me, it don’t make sense,” Morris is saying.
“We have no choice but to have this chip on our shoulder,” McDuffie is mentioning.
“I’m kind of used to the short end of the stick, if you will, on the seedings,” were coach Gregg Marshall’s words earlier this week.
What do people miss on the Shockers? “I think we all kind of wonder that,” Frankamp said. “I really don’t have an answer to that.”
But here’s the thing about Wichita State. In a tournament parched for underdog stories, why not the Shockers? They might seethe at their idea of the selection committee kicking sand in their faces, but if they pull it off against Kentucky, they can take a bow as Cinderella. Even though Cinderella might be wearing brass knuckles.
Boy, this tournament needs someone to step forward like that. In the first round, upsets went the way of the rotary telephone, as the underdogs were squashed en masse. Seeds 1 through 4 were 16-0, which hasn’t happened in 10 years. And they didn’t do it gently; 11 of the 16 games were by decided 15 or more points. None were closer than six.
By Friday night, the tournament was so anxious for drama, it seemed news that Northern Kentucky could actually still see Kentucky with the naked eye. Cats by only nine? Shocker!
The first round did give us a few compelling moments. Princeton with an open 3-pointer to beat Notre Dame (it missed). The bad dream for Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis, and the ill-fated foul against Northwestern. Millions of sympathizers around the country have added two words to his name since Thursday. Poor kid. South Carolina earned its first tournament win since the Nixon administration, Northwestern its first since the big bang.
But even the upsets didn’t look like upsets. Middle Tennessee over Minnesota? What seven people in the country didn’t have that? Xavier, USC. They don’t sound much like Davids bringing down Goliath.
Neither does Wichita State, for that matter. But if the Shockers can’t be George Mason, they can at least present themselves as an aggrieved party, annually done wrong by the committee. Plus, they can seek revenge for the day Kentucky ruined their dreams.
That was 2014, by the way. Wichita State was 35-0 and No. 1 seed. Kentucky had had some tough moments during the season, so the Wildcats were a No. 8. Eighth-seeded Kentucky. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? It meant the Wildcats were in the Shockers’ way the second game. That turned out an absolute classic, but Wichita State went home the 78-76 loser, wondering how a Kentucky team destined for the national championship game ended up its second round opponent.
“It’s a feeling you wouldn’t want again,” Morris said of the Wichita State locker room that day.
So now they’ve been mixed together again. “The committee loves that, it seems,” Morris said.
You shouldn't be shocked.— ESPN (@espn) March 18, 2017
Just 5 schools have a win in each of the last 5 tourneys: Gonzaga, Kansas, Oregon, UNC ... and now Wichita State. pic.twitter.com/RM2frSjEZ8
Marshall has long been suspicious of the routes handed schools such as as Wichita State.
“They want to weed out the non-Power Fives as quickly as possible, it appears,” he said. “There’s a lot of quality basketball being played at some of these places. I’ll go a step further. There’s a lot of bad basketball being played in the Power 5 leagues.”
So Wichita State can strike a blow for the little guy, even if it’s not all that little. The Shockers were in the Final Four four years ago. And they can do it against the bluebloods from the Bluegrass, a chance they duly noted on Selection Sunday, even with a difficult game against Dayton first.
“It’s hard not to notice Kentucky right below us, or above us, or wherever they were in the bracket,” Frankamp said.
Maybe all that can add zest to this March Mildness. Through the first round, only five of the 36 games had ended with a one-possession difference. Twenty of the 36 were won by at least 10 points, seven by at least 20.