ST. LOUIS — Wichita State’s season came to a conclusion long before even Kentucky coach John Calipari thought it deserved, at the hands of his Wildcats in a thrilling NCAA tournament game.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the loss on Sunday, two things became clear: The Shockers had put together a season to remember and they’re poised to do it again.
After making the Final Four a year ago, they became the first team to start 35-0. They won their first Missouri Valley tournament title since 1987. They went toe-to-toe with the mighty Wildcats, a team stocked with NBA talent, until the final buzzer finally sounded.
Calipari said afterward that it should have been an Elite Eight game, and the winner should have gone to the Final Four. Instead, when the Shockers’ Fred VanVleet missed a 3-pointer at the end, it was Kentucky that was advancing and Wichita State that was headed home.
“Wichita State never gave up,” Calipari said, “and they had their chance to win the game.”
Now, the question is whether they’ll have another chance next season.
They’ll have to find a way to replace Cleanthony Early, the long, lean and perpetually poised swingman who scored 31 points against the Wildcats. The junior college transfer was the key to the Shockers’ Final Four run a year ago, and his ever-present smile and cheerful disposition helped to keep things light-hearted when the pressure of the unbeaten record was starting to build.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Early, whose virtuoso performance may just get him drafted by the NBA. “I wanted it to end a little different, but I have to understand certain facts. I’m sure I’ll continue working really hard to be successful. I’m sure my teammates will as well.”
The Shockers will also lose bruising forward Kadeem Coleby and Chadrack Lufile and sixth man Nick Wiggins, all of them to graduation. Coleby and Lufile provided the kind of bulk that allowed Wichita State to compete with the bigger Wildcats, while Wiggins never shied away from a big shot.
“It’s a tough loss for the seniors and for the guys coming back next year,” Wiggins said late Sunday. “When you strive for perfection you want nothing less than that.”
But even in defeat, Lufile said, the Shockers proved themselves.
“People doubted us but you can’t take away the past,” he said. “We made history, you can’t take that away from us.”
VanVleet will return for his junior season after earning the Missouri Valley player of the year award. Talented sophomore Ron Baker, who scored 20 against the Wildcats, will also be back, as will Tekele Cotton — the Valley’s best defender — and a host of other contributors.
Throw in a recruiting class full of promise and Wichita State should not only be a massive favorite to win the Valley but also make a run for another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe even make a little more history.
“It’s just one of those things, growing up you go through some humps in your life,” Baker said, “kind of like this one. ... I thought we had a great year.”
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has said before that he wants to model his program after Gonzaga, which overcame the mid-major stigma to become a perennial contender. He doesn’t want this to be a brief stay at the top. He wants to consistently compete for championships.
“I didn’t really set a limit on what we could achieve, and I didn’t set a minimum on what we should achieve,” Marshall said. “I just believed in myself and my staff and the players that were there. I knew the players that we could recruit with that type of fervor in the fan base, the great facilities. And that’s come true.
“And did I think Final Four? No, I didn’t. I didn’t think like that. But you know, we’re two possessions away from playing for a national championship, so we can. Butler has proven that. They had a shot in the air to either tie or win that game against Duke a couple of years ago, so basketball has changed. And teams like us, programs like us, have a chance now.”