I love watching the Wichita State Shockers.
I love their toughness. I love their coolness under pressure. I love their backcourt of Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, maybe the country’s most underappreciated and underrated duo.
I love the slinkiness of Cleanthony Early, who can slither his way to the basket, yet is feathery enough to drop in 3-pointers from long distance. I love the toughness and defensive prowess of Tekele Cotton, who’s not a great shooter but seems to hit so many big shots for somebody who shoots it crooked more often than not. I love how they go about their business without becoming full of themselves. I love how they “play angry.”
I just wish I could love their schedule.
The Shockers won their 24th straight game on Wednesday, scrapping past second-place Indiana State (without Larry Bird) in a hostile environment. Had they lost, they had the built-in excuse that they were delayed getting into Terre Haute. But this is a team that has learned to adapt expertly to any situation thrown in their face.
The Shockers can’t apologize for their schedule. Like the Kansas City Chiefs’ football schedule, they are playing the teams placed in front of them and knocking them down like bowling pins.
It’s a shame that Creighton bolted the Missouri Valley Conference for the reconfigured Big East. The Bluejays were to the Shockers what Missouri was to Kansas, without Quantrill’s Raid. Creighton’s replacement, Loyola of Chicago, would have been ideal had it been 50 years ago when the Ramblers had one of the premier programs in the country. Now they’re nothing more than fodder and a warm body to round out the conference.
It hasn’t helped that Northern Iowa isn’t as good as previous years, though it’ll certainly give the Shockers everything they want on Saturday. The two Illinois schools — Southern and State — also have fallen on hard times. Missouri State is so-so, while Bradley, Drake and Evansville seem to be clones of each other.
To borrow a phrase from my colleague Nick Gosnell, it is what it is. The Shockers will have to wait until Arch Madness and then the NCAA Tournament to get some national love.
You just have to wonder how WSU would fare in the, say, Big 12. To be honest, I think the Shockers would be a lot like the teams not named the Kansas Jayhawks. They would be in that pack that includes everybody else except for TCU, which I’m not sure can win a game.
The Shockers’ basketball IQ would keep them in the upper half. Van Vleet is as good of point guard as there is in college basketball, as he can control the tempo of a game. KU would love to have Baker, who would be along the lines of a Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar or Ryan Robertson. Early is a solid forward, though I don’t think he’s been as a good this year as I expected. Cotton would guard the opponent’s best scorer, while coach Gregg Marshall would rotate his trio of big men in a conference that for the most part is lacking in star power in that area.
Plug WSU in place of TCU and I could see the Shockers going maybe 12-6 in conference play. It’s just too tough to win on the road in the Big 12. As we enter the second half of Big 12 play, it wouldn’t surprise me to see KU go 6-3 this time around. It has some angry arenas to play in such as Gallagher-Iba and Bramlage Coliseum. And it’s no picnic to win in Morgantown, especially since it has to fly halfway across the country to get there.
Wichita State certainly is one of the top three feel-good stories of college basketball. I just hope it gets the ending it deserves, at least a trip to the Sweet 16, Elite 8 or Final 4.