By Steve Kallas
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Well, it was pretty clear that it was going to be virtually impossible, given their extremely tough bracket, for undefeated Wichita State to win the national championship. In fact, it was hard to believe that the Shockers could get to the Final Four.
To do so, they would have had to have beaten Kentucky, a No. 8 seed that should have been a 4 or 5. Remember, the Wildcats lost to overall No. 1 seed Florida by one in the SEC Championship game,, Louisville, a No. 4 that should have been a No. 1 or 2, and the winner of Michigan-Duke, the 2 and 3 seeds, respectively, in their region.
THE PROBLEM FOR WICHITA STATE
Aside from the competition, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall put his team in a difficult position with his ill-advised quote when asked, before the tournament, if he was worried about the criticism that his team had played a very weak schedule.
“Wolves do not fret over the opinions of sheep,” Marshall said.
It almost made it hard to root for a team that, despite going 34-0 in the regular season, hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. The Shockers’ conference, the Missouri Valley, was particularly weak this season, with only Indiana State and Northern Iowa being above .500 in the conference.
So, it was a very fair statement to say that Wichita State was going to have a very tough time advancing in the tournament.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
In a fascinating interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN on Tuesday, Marshall still didn’t seem to quite get it. He said that it was hard to have to “justify being 34-0 and a No. 1 seed.”
What? Stop right there! This was the same guy who only a week earlier said what he said about wolves and sheep, so it was his job to ignore all the criticism.
But was it really criticism? The right-minded “sheep” simply pointed out the obvious; that is, that Wichita State hadn’t beaten anyone really good all season. That’s not an opinion – that’s a statement of fact. And even if it was criticism, coaches and teams should be able to ignore that. That is one of the signs of a champion.
Still not getting it, Marshall went on to tell Francesa that “some of the detractors even finally in our loss had come to the side and the realization that, hey, maybe this team was a great team.”
Well, not exactly. Marshall seemed surprised that Wichita State earned more national respect from losing to Kentucky than from going 35-0. But that makes perfect sense. Kentucky easily played its best game of the season and is peaking at the right time, which is what you would expect in modern day college basketball with a very young team. The Wldcats are, right now, playing as well as anybody in the country. So, of course Marshall’s team earned more respect in its only defeat.
Why is that a surprise?
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Francesa asked the right question when he asked the coach what he was looking for on the final play. While Mike tried to cover for the coach by saying that his point guard was shooting 46 percent from 3-point range, the reality is that Fred Van Vleet, who had a great season but a terrible shooting game (1-for-6 from the floor), was probably the last guy you wanted to take the final shot.
How do we know this? Well, earlier in the interview, Marshall said that Van Vleet couldn’t get in his “rhythm” because of foul trouble. In addition, Marshall said that Van Vleet, in trying to take a charge, which resulted in his third foul, hit his head on the floor and “was a little woozy” during the game.
So, back to the final play, Option 1, according to the coach, was Cleanthony Early getting a back screen for “either a lob or a post-up to tie the game.” Marshall then half-threw his best player, who shot an amazing 12-for-17 for a game-high 31 points, under the bus by saying Early “really didn’t make a great cut” and “he was reluctant on his cut.” More on this in a bit.
Option 2 was Ron Baker on a screen into the corner. Clearly Baker, who was 7-for-12, including 4-for-6 from 3, for 20 points, was the best second option. But Julius Randle, guarding the in-bounds pass, dropped off and essentially doubled Baker.
Option 3 was Van Vleet, who got the ball, dribbled left, then dribbled right, had a good look and threw up a brick that kind of hit the backboard and the side of the rim at the same time.
WAS THE WICHITA STATE COACH BEING DISINGENUOUS?
During the interview, Marshall said that, because Early didn’t cut hard to the basket, “his man, Willie Cauley-Stein, contested the shot.” While Cauley-Stein DID contest the shot (although Van Vleet got a good look), there’s no chance that Cauley-Stein was guarding Early. In fact, he was guarding Darius Carter, who was just clogging the middle to set a screen. James Young was guarding Early from the get-go on the final play and stayed with him throughout.
Did the head coach of Wichita State not know that or was he trying to deflect?
Draw your own conclusion.
A BETTER FINAL PLAY?
Well, it should have been the play, one way or another, to get the ball in Early’s hands. On fire the whole game, the best player on the floor, the hottest shooter, to send him 30 or 35 feet from the in-bounder for a maybe lob or post-up was not the wisest choice. To be fair, on replay, it seemed that, for a split-second, a lob might have worked if Early had gone all the way to the basket. But with 3.2 seconds left, it would have been better to get the ball in quickly to Early and let him work his magic.
It would have been better to send Carter for the lob, take the 7-footer Cauley-Stein with him and then get the ball to Early for a 3 or a drive. Again, to have your best player and best shooter (on this day) run AWAY from the ball, which was in-bounded side-out from north of the top of the key, wasn’t a great plan.
WHY DID WICHITA STATE LOSE?
Francesa was right that Kentucky hit a lot of big 3s and it hasn’t made 3s like that all year. The Wildcats were a stunning, for them, 8-for-18 from behind the arc. Their excellent foul shooting, however, was not an accident.
Again, against No. 1 overall seed Florida, which was just a week earlier in the SEC Championship, Kentucky came of age. In that one-point loss to the top team in the country, Kentucky was 21-for-26 from the line, including 5-for-6 down the stretch. Against Wichita State, they went 16-for-22 from the line, including 6-for-8 down the stretch.
So why did Wichita State lose? Well, its last three possessions featured Tekele Cotton (a good player having a bad offensive game) missing a 3 with 1:10 left, Ron Baker banking in a 3 with 29 seconds left and Van Vleet missing a 3 at the buzzer.
There were no shots from Early, who was easily the Shockers’ best player that day.
SO IS WICHITA STATE A “GREAT” TEAM?
Not really. There are no great teams in this tournament. In fact, there are rarely great teams in college basketball anymore. From the UCLA glory days of Alcindor and Walton, when freshman couldn’t play (so they could get acclimated to college life), the college game has transformed to a “one and done” scenario, where some top players only play in their freshman year and then go on to the NBA, whether they are really ready or not.
So neither Wichita State nor Kentucky is a great college basketball team. They just don’t make them like they once did in college basketball. But Wichita State and Kentucky did play a great college basketball game.
One final thought: there was video of Marshall telling his players that they were the first team ever to start 35-0. While that is true, it seems to miss the fact that all of those undefeated UCLA teams, usually 30-0, never played 35 games. That’s just another thing to remember when comparing then and now.
Wichita State had a great season, but the Shockers weren’t the best team in the country and they had virtually no chance to win the national title. They played great against Kentucky and lost. They should have been a No. 1 seed and were awarded one by the selection committee, but were also killed by being put in the toughest bracket in the tournament.
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