ST. LOUIS — Wichita State goes for the first 35-0 start in NCAA men’s basketball history on the same court where the top-seeded Shockers won their last three games.
Almost as good as home cooking.
After snipping down the nets as Missouri Valley Conference tournament title champs, coach Gregg Marshall predicted a return trip to St. Louis allowing players to sleep in the same hotel beds, revisit the scene of that success and play before a massive, mobile yellow-clad fan base again for the 1 vs. 16 Midwest Region matchup against Cal Poly on Friday night.
“Great to be back,” Marshall said. “Shocker fans know their way to St. Louis. It’s like we were just here, kind of like ground hog day.”
The team with the best record in the field draws the lone sub-.500 entrant, on paper not much of a deterrent to a victory that would top UNLV’s 34-0 start in 1990-91.
Marshall uses jersey numbers of past Wichita State greats as a fun reference point.
“Right now, we’re at Xavier McDaniel. Thirty-five is Antoine Carr,” Marshall said. “We are 0-0 in this tournament and now we need a six-game win streak. That’s what we’ll be focusing on.”
“It’s great to make it,” coach Joe Callero said. “But it’s a little better to do something once you get there and get a victory.”
Five things to know about Cal Poly-Wichita State:
HISTORIC RUN — The only other 34-0 start in NCAA history was by UNLV in 1991 before losing to Duke in the national semifinals. Win No. 34 topped by one the season by fellow Valley member Indiana State in 1979, when the Larry Bird-led Sycamores lost in the title game to Michigan State and Magic Johnson.
Pressure hasn’t entered the picture yet. The Shockers dispatched three foes in the conference tournament by an average margin of 20 points.
But why would it? This team proved immune last spring, making it to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed.
“It allows you to be calm in those adverse moments,” said sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet, the Valley player of the year. “Once you’ve done something once, the second time is hopefully a little easier.”
HISTORIC UNDERDOG — This is Cal Poly’s first NCAA appearance and it’s already a big success.
By beating Texas Southern on Wednesday in Dayton, the Mustangs became the first 19-loss team in 59 years to win a tournament game. Long forgotten is a 2-9 stretch prior to the conference tournament.
Going forward, there’s absolutely nothing to lose.
“Wichita State is a great team, they’re a national favorite, they’ve been undefeated all season,” said forward Chris Eversley, the Big West tourney MVP. “The one thing we like to focus on is just ourselves.”
Marshall can relate. Before coming to Wichita State he coached a lot of longshot underdogs at Winthrop, and always believed it could win this time of the year.
“I’ve been a 16-seed, I’ve been a 15-seed, a 14-seed a couple of times, and finally in 2007 we were an 11-seed,” Marshall said. “That was by far the best the Big South had ever gotten, so I know exactly what they are feeling.”
DEEP LINEUP — Though VanVleet is the Valley player of the year, he’s just one member of an accomplished ensemble. One of numerous headaches for opponents to worry about. Cleanthony Early leads the team with a 15.7-point average with VanVlelet (12.4), Ron Baker (12.3) and Tekele Cotton (10.1) right behind. Off the bench, Kadeem Coleby is the best shot blocker.
It’s a seasoned bunch, too. Cotton was the Valley tourney MVP after his 49th consecutive start and Baker is 47-2 as a starter during his career.
“I think last year we flew under the radar with people underestimating how good we can be,” Early said. “I think this year we are over that radar.”
DRIVEN TEAM — The mid-major tag hasn’t quite gone away. All season, Wichita State’s fielded criticism about so-so strength of schedule and a run that many aren’t sold on.
It’s been a rallying point.
“It is still us against the world,” VanVleet said. “We are still hungry, still being the hunters and not allowing ourselves to be hunted.”
NO STUMBLES — Marshall vows there’ll be no strutting on game day against an opponent that arrived for its early evening practice with zero fanfare. The Shockers got here by respecting the opposition and not looking ahead.
The St. Louis field includes traditional powers Kansas and Kentucky but that’s for another day. Just like last year when Wichita State kept advancing.
“Obviously it’s a great region that’s stacked,” Marshall said. “But I will be honest with you, I didn’t even think about it, I didn’t talk to my team about it.”