AFTER A STUNNING FINAL FOUR RUN LAST YEAR, WELL-OILED, WELL-BALANCED WICHITA STATE HAS GONE UNBEATEN DESPITE THE BEST SHOTS OF OPPONENTS (AND THEIR FANS)
TONIGHT THE NATIVES wear blue paint and blue rubber gloves and they worship a blue fox named Sycamore Sam and they shower the referees with gentle Midwestern insults such as, "Hey, Sir, I don't mean to be rude, but you suck." They fill the Hulman Center at Indiana State with a roar not heard in this building since Larry Bird played here 35 years ago. It's Feb. 5, and their Sycamores are respectable, 17--5, with a freewheeling point guard named Jake Odum, but the 10,200-seat arena is too big for the Sycamores to fill on their own. The good people of Terre Haute have driven through the remains of a blizzard to see the visitors, the fourth-ranked Wichita State Shockers, who have not lost a game in 305 days. Odum hits a three, cutting the Shockers' lead to 15--14. "Boom!" he shouts, inciting a small riot.
The visitors are used to this. One of only two undefeated teams in Division I (along with Syracuse) this season, the Shockers are like the big man at the saloon whom everyone wants to punch in the teeth. Their coach, Gregg Marshall, has actually been punched in the teeth several times, and he compares the away-game experience to visiting the dentist: You don't enjoy it, but when it's over you feel pretty good.
Opposing fans enjoy heckling Marshall. Maybe it's his slick hair or his loud voice or the way he prowls the sideline like a tiger in a cage, or maybe it's just that he usually wins—the Shockers have had at least 20 victories in each of the last five seasons. In December, at Saint Louis, in their only win over an opponent currently in the Top 25, a guy near the scorer's table stood up and screamed at Marshall until he was red in the face. The coach finally turned to him and said, "Sir, you might wanna calm down, because I'm worried about your blood pressure."
Sycamores guard Khristian Smith hits a three, cutting the Shockers' lead to 28--22. Twelve seconds later Wichita State junior guard Tekele Cotton answers with his own three, stretching the lead back to nine. Wichita State doesn't lead the nation in any category, but it does everything well enough. The Shockers might shoot 44.9%, but their opponent will shoot 39.5%. They'll make as many free throws as you attempt. If you get three blocks, they'll get five. If you get five steals, they'll get seven. They'll be slightly better than you in the first half and slightly more better in the second.
But this is only a statistical forecast. No one goes through the Missouri Valley Conference schedule without heavy bruising, and no one has beaten Indiana State at the Hulman Center this year. Senior swingman Manny Arop scores on a beautiful up-and-under, giving the Sycamores a 37--36 lead. He has made seven of nine from the field. The Shockers go on a 14--2 run. The Sycamores respond with an 11--2 run. The blue fans continue their measured assault on the refs: "Sir, can we get a call, please? Can you stop being a little girl?" The jumbotron shows a silver-haired Wichita State fan tapping on his smartphone, and the natives roar with derision.
Two, four, six, eight!
Wichita is not a state!
The Shockers have talent but no superstar. Three players have started at the five this year. Their best scorer, 6'8" senior forward Cleanthony Early, has drawn attention from NBA scouts but is not projected as a draft pick. Their second-leading scorer, 6'3" sophomore guard Ron Baker, joined the team as a walk-on.
Point guard Fred VanVleet may be the team's most valuable player. He makes nearly four assists for every turnover, which ranks fifth in the nation, and he plays his best with the game on the line. When the Shockers overcame an 19-point deficit to win at Missouri State in January, VanVleet scored 12 of their last 13 points. Now he dribbles near the top of the key. The Shockers lead 58--55 with 3:15 remaining and the shot clock running down. The blue fans make a fearsome racket. Five, four, three. VanVleet is trapped, unable to see a passing lane or an opening to the hoop. So he makes a decision. Instead of throwing a bad pass or taking a wild shot that might lead to a fast break, he lets the clock run out. The Sycamores get the ball, but the Shockers get time to set their defense. They block the next shot and keep the lead. Even when they turn it over, they turn it over well.
At every level of basketball, the point guard wants to be the hero—especially when his team is losing. Most will go one on three or one on four just to see how it might turn out. This happens a lot against the Shockers, who drive opposing point guards to desperation. Here comes Odum, a 6'4" senior, into the teeth of the defense, floating, leaning, fluttering, missing. The Shockers rebound. The Sycamores foul senior forward Chadrack Lufile once, twice, three times. Last season Lufile made only 40.0% of his free throws. This year he stays after practice and shoots as many as 200 per day. Now he makes 4 of 6, giving the Shockers a 65--58 lead that becomes the final score.
Only in retrospect is it clear what changed in the second half. The stat sheet lists REBOUNDS, BLOCKS and STEALS, but Marshall wishes it had another column: PLAYS IN WHICH YOU STOPPED YOUR MAN FROM SCORING. Arop led the Sycamores with 16 points, but after his basket to open the second half, Baker held him to one point on 0-for-6 shooting.
"Terrible," Arop says after the game. "I feel terrible."
ON SATURDAY MORNING in the windswept town of Cedar Falls, Iowa, two young men go into a print shop. They want to enlarge a picture. Larger. No, larger. Four sheets of your largest paper should do it. The photo, which they found on the Web, shows Ron Baker with a hairdo befitting a 1970s grandmother. When Baker was growing up in Scott City, Kans., he saw pictures of his father and uncle from their senior years in high school. They both had permanent waves. So for his own senior year Ron continued the family tradition. Now the two Northern Iowa students finish their masterpiece. The day goes by, another snowstorm passing through, and in the dark they bring their big, permed Ron Baker to the McLeod Center for the game against Wichita State.
Everyone laughs, including the Shockers and especially Baker. "I thought it was Ron Baker Night in Cedar Falls," he'll say later.
This attention from opposing fans is a compliment, of course. As VanVleet puts it, "They don't boo anybody who's not any good." But in their collective excitement on Saturday night, as their team plays an undefeated opponent on national television, some of the fans get ugly. Right after the opening tip Baker trips and falls hard on his knee, and a fan bellows, "See ya next fall!" A moment later, Early falls and hurts his shoulder and lies on the floor underneath the basket, a few feet from the student section. The game stops. As Marshall and the Shockers gather around Early, the fans taunt him with a song.
You let the whole team down! ...
Early gets up, shaken but unharmed. He walks to the bench without looking at the fans. He returns to the game moments later, drives to the hoop, absorbs a bone-shaking foul and makes the shot.
Came too Early, the fans chant. Came too Early!
He makes the free throw.
"It's fun," he will say later. "They try and violate."
With 2:46 left in the first half, Early is tested again. A Northern Iowa player wrestles with him under the hoop, grabs his arm and then falls, making it look as if Early pushed him. The referee calls a foul. When Early jumps up angrily, VanVleet intervenes. He looks for the nearest referee, trying to block his view of Early. VanVleet grabs his teammate and calms him down. VanVleet is a sophomore, but he plays with the composure of a fifth-year senior. The Shockers get Early to the bench. VanVleet finds a referee and thanks him for not calling a technical.
Early scores 16 points in the first half, and the Shockers lead 44--37. Then, in the first minute of the second half, he picks up his second and third fouls and returns to the bench. The Panthers cut the lead to one. The fans intensify their heckling: Hey, Baker! Your hair sucks!
Baker! My mother has that hairstyle!
Baker ignores them. The Shockers push the lead to 14. The Panthers get tired. The Panthers' fans get tired. "Baker," one says, and then trails off, unable to summon another epithet.
This is another reason the Shockers are so hard to beat. They have nine players who average at least 12 minutes a game. Nobody averages more than 33 minutes. Their reserves are experienced, and their starters are well-rested. Their top scorer rides the bench for 12 minutes in the second half, and in that time they increase their lead by nine points. Early is scoreless in the second half. Senior center Kadeem Coleby is scoreless the whole game. Baker goes 0 for 3 from deep. And the Shockers still win 82--73 because someone else steps up. Someone always does. This time it's Cotton, a defensive specialist who is known to leave opponents in tears. Nobody does just one thing. Cotton is not just a defender or a dunking highlight machine. He can shoot too, and tonight he hits four threes and leads the team with 18 points. Meanwhile 6'7" junior Darius Carter, part of the three-man platoon at the five, scores 15 points in 22 minutes. He does not miss a field goal. When Baker goes to the line with 17.9 seconds left, the giant picture is nowhere in sight. Baker makes both shots. Nobody calls his name.
TEN MONTHS ago in Atlanta, two teams met in the national semifinal. One dominated the first two-thirds of the game. The score was 47--35 with barely 13 minutes left. And then the other team began a wild and improbable comeback. Grasping at straws, the coach put in a walk-on guard who had scored 16 points the entire season. This walk-on hit two threes in less than a minute, cutting the lead in half. Still, the starters weren't getting it done. The all-conference shooting guard jacked up one desperate shot after another. The conference defensive player of the year got into foul trouble. The comeback would not have happened without a reserve forward who averaged eight points a game. Undaunted by the spotlight, he drove and scored. He drove and scored again. He drilled a three. He drilled another three. He made an incredible drive across the lane, scooping a shot in with his right hand to give his team a 67--62 lead with barely a minute left. Luke Hancock scored 20 points off the bench, and top-seeded Louisville went on to beat No. 9 seed Wichita State 72--68 en route to winning the NCAA Championship. But for most of the game it was Louisville that looked like the underdog. The Shockers stood up to the Cardinals' best players and made them look ordinary, just as they'd done with Gonzaga and Ohio State. And if not for clutch performances by two little-known Louisville reserves, WSU would have played for the national title.
On balance the Shockers are better this year. The analysts may scoff at their strength of schedule, ranked somewhere around 100th nationally, but there's nothing the players can do about that. In the off-season WSU tried to schedule games against several nonconference powerhouses. None wanted to play the Shockers.
LET'S SAY you play 35 games in a season. In 25, you play like you should. In five, you play better than you should. And in five others, you play worse than you should. These are Gregg Marshall's calculations. In the 26th game of this season, at home against Southern Illinois on Feb. 11, the Shockers play worse than they should. And they still find a way to win.
Southern Illinois has two phenomenal one-on-one players, senior Desmar Jackson and sophomore Anthony Beane, and they light up Wichita State's two best defenders, scoring a combined 19 points over the first 13 minutes of the game. Jackson hits a three in Baker's face. Beane takes Cotton to the hole. Baker turns the ball over, setting up Beane for two points in the open court. Baker is called for a charge. Beane hits a three in Cotton's face. Beane hits a lovely fadeaway over Cotton. Beane hits a lovely fadeaway over VanVleet. The Salukis take a 33--32 lead into the locker room. Four minutes into the second half, they lead 43--41. Southern Illinois is 10--15 this year and is still outplaying the fourth-ranked team in the country.
The Shockers play at Charles Koch Arena, commonly known as the Roundhouse. The home fans got loud in Indiana. They got loud in Iowa. But the 10,506 fans in the Roundhouse bring the noise to another level. Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson will later say it was the fans who won this game.
The roar gets into your skull, giving you a mild case of vertigo. It's so loud that Hinson has to stomp on the floor like Rumpelstiltskin to get his players' attention. It gets louder when Baker drains a 23-footer. It gets louder still when Cotton slashes to the rim and scores. Hinson screams for a timeout. No one hears him. He finally gets the ref's attention by waving his arms. Baker hits another three. The Shockers trap an opponent in the corner. Hinson is so desperate for a timeout that he runs to the referee and puts his arms around him. Jackson fouls out, leaving Beane to carry the load. Hinson is stomping again. Baker hits another three. VanVleet gets a steal and scores.
The fans are screaming. The fans are singing. The Shockers are 26--0. Good teams don't want to play them. In March they'll have no choice.
IF YOU GET THREE BLOCKS, THE SHOCKERS WILL GET FIVE. IF YOU GET FIVE STEALS, THEY'LL GET SEVEN.
WICHITA STATE FANS BRING THE NOI SE TO ANOTHER LEVEL. THE ROAR GETS INTO YOUR SKULL, GIVING YOU A MILD CASE OF VERTIGO.
QUEST FOR PERFECTION
ONLY FOUR TEAMS HAVE FINISHED THE REGULAR SEASON WITHOUT A LOSS SINCE 1975--76, WHEN INDIANA WENT 32--0 AND TOOK THE NATIONAL TITLE.
Photographs by DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RUNNING AWAY WITH IT VanVleet (right) & Co. have had the best start by an MVC team since Indiana State in 1978--79, and they've won their home conference games by an average of 16.0 points.