There’s no question the 2015-16 Wichita State Shockers wielded the talent and the experience to be one of the best teams in the country.
The senior backcourt duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker was as good as it gets, and the coaching staff had added the depth that was needed from last season.
Nearly everyone — players, coaches, fans — was looking for the team to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
The Shockers started off the season with a No. 10 national ranking, but because of injuries to key players, the team struggled out of the gate and finished their opening non-conference play with five losses and only one big win, against the Utah Utes.
With Shocker heart and grit, they were climbing their way back into national rankings with a string of wins in Missouri Valley Conference play when losses to Illinois State (53-58 on Feb. 6) and Northern Iowa (50-53 on Feb. 13) put Wichita State in a perilous position: a team capable of a Final Four run, but on the verge of not making the NCAA tournament.
Another loss to the UNI Panthers (52-57 OT on March 5) in the MVC tournament semifinals only compounded the danger for the 24-8 Shockers, and heightened the debate on the relative importance of using KenPom’s statistical data in choosing teams on Selection Sunday.
Wichita State, according to KenPom, was always a top 20 team, despite its “bad losses” and having only the 107th hardest schedule in the nation.
The Most Dangerous Team in the Tournament
The Shockers won out and were selected as an 11 seed for the tournament, but were charged with winning a South Region First Four play-in game against Vanderbilt to reach the First Round — which they did handily, dismantling the Commodores, 70-50, on March 15 in Dayton, Ohio.
This was no surprise, not to Shocker fans and not when counting Wichita State’s tournament experience.
The Shockers had three starters and nine players returning from last year’s Sweet Sixteen run, including VanVleet and Baker who were making their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
Coach Gregg Marshall had 12 NCAA tournament appearances to his credit, his fifth straight as a Shocker.
With the win, the Shockers advanced to face the sixth-seeded Arizona Wildcats in a Round of 64 game on March 17 in Providence, R.I.
Before the contest, Arizona Coach Sean Miller said, “We’re in for one heck of a battle. I don’t really care the seed, what we are, what they are. You come to this tournament expecting to play against some terrific teams, and we know Wichita State is that.”
Miller knew what he was talking about.
The Shockers took down the Wildcats, 65-55, but it wasn’t ever that close. From the start, the Shocker defense was stifling.
After VanVleet and Baker both dove on the floor for the ball on Arizona’s end of the court after only a minute of play, Miller, sensing trouble, called a timeout.
“That was kind of a statement from the go that we were going to start the game playing hard,” Baker said after the game.
Up next: the Miami Hurricanes. The opening 10 minutes of the March 19 Round of 32 game seemed a surreal antithesis to the Shockers’ tough starting play against the Wildcats only two days past.
The Shockers entered the game averaging 9.7 turnovers per game, seventh fewest in the nation — and had 10 turnovers in the first half.
The third-seeded Canes stormed out to a 21-point lead and went into the locker room at halftime ahead 32-19.
But Wichita State never caved and battled back with a gutsy, 22-4 spurt in the second half.
A steal and slam by Shaquille Morris pulled the Shockers to within a basket, and just over a minute later, Baker hit a 3 with 10:25 left to give WSU a one-point lead.
It was vintage PLAY ANGRY play.
At the 2:59 mark, WSU was threatening upset, down by four, 51-55. Miami, though, refused to lose, and the Shockers went down fighting, 65-57.
Wichita State had been allowing 58.9 points per game to lead the nation, and they ranked fifth in field goal percentage defense (38.3). Miami shot 60 percent in the first half and 55.3 percent for the game.
The Greatest Fans in the Nation
Nearly 400 intrepid Wichita State fans braved cold weather and a late-night arrival to welcome their team home to Koch Arena.
They waved signs and jostled for the best position to see and cheer for the Shockers as they exited the arriving bus from the airport.
Tired as they were, players and coaches made time for their fans, stopping for photos and to sign autographs.
And they took to social media to thank “the greatest fans in the nation”:
Baker posted, “Wow, what a blessing every one of you has been to me!” And from VanVleet: “I want to thank Shocker Nation from the bottom of my heart. What a ride!”
After that last game of the season for the Shockers, Shocker fan Rick DeMoss related, “Sad day, but we know the kind of program Coach Marshall has built, and I see nothing but good in our future.”