Wichita State’s reward for a perfect regular season is a loaded Midwest Region, where the top-seeded Shockers will be joined by fellow Final Four participants Michigan and Louisville from a year ago and two of the titans of college hoops.
Now that’s something for the Shockers to be angry about.
Coach Gregg Marshall’s team landed the first No. 1 seed in school history on Sunday night and will begin play Friday in St. Louis, where they ran their record to 34-0 by winning the Missouri Valley tournament title last weekend. The Shockers will open against the winner of a First Four game between Big West champion Cal Poly and SWAC champion Texas Southern.
Also inhabiting the Midwest are the second-seeded Wolverines and fourth-seeded Cardinals, who played each other in last year’s title game won by Louisville. Then there’s No. 3 seed Duke and No. 8 seed Kentucky, two programs with March pedigrees that match up with anybody.
Not much of a prize for Wichita State, the first school to reach the NCAA tournament with a perfect record since UNLV in 1991. In fact, the minefield might just give the Shockers a good reason to keep “playing angry,” that mantra they’ve adopted over the past couple of years.
“I feel like I have something to prove, and my teammates have something to prove,” Shockers star Cleanthony Early said. “And when you will be facing programs that people think you can’t beat, those are the types of challenges you need to prove yourself.”
If the Shockers advance, they’ll await the winner of Kentucky and No. 9 seed Kansas State, a school that rarely plays them even though they’re a few hours’ drive from each other.
“When you watch college basketball when you grow up, you think about three programs — you think about Kansas, Duke and Kentucky,” Kansas State guard Shane Southwell said. “I was fortunate enough to play against Kansas and Duke and now I’m about to play Kentucky. I want to beat them. It’ll be a great experience, and they’re a really big program and it’s something I want to get under my belt.”
In other second-round games, Big Ten regular-season champ Michigan will open against No. 15 seed Wofford of the Southern Conference; Duke will face No. 14 seed Mercer of the Atlantic Sun; Louisville will get No. 13 seed Manhattan from the MAAC; and No. 7 seed Texas will take on No. 10 seed Arizona State in a tantalizing Big 12-Pac-12 matchup.
The Midwest Region also includes two First Four games involving bubble teams: No. 12 seeds North Carolina State and Xavier will meet in Dayton, Ohio, for the right to face No. 5 seed Saint Louis, and No. 11 seeds Iowa and Tennessee will meet for a shot at No. 6 seed Massachusetts.
The seeding of Louisville (29-5) may have been the biggest surprise of the bracket, though, and the biggest reason why coaches were calling the Midwest the toughest of the four regions.
Many people thought the Cardinals had earned a second or third seed, and coach Rick Pitino — admittedly biased — thought his team had done enough to warrant a No. 1. After all, his team has won five straight and 12 of its last 13, including the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The NCAA selection committee thought differently.
“You look at the number four line and we have some great teams,” committee chairman Ron Wellman said. “We look at the total resume, though. Right now, if you ask anybody, Louisville is playing as well as anyone, and the committee certainly agrees with that. However, we look at the total body of work, comparing everything they did from November through March.”
Louisville spokesman Kenny Klein said that Pitino wouldn’t comment on the seeding. He had another reason to be miffed with the selection committee, too: Minnesota, the team coached by his son Richard, was among the last teams left hanging on the bubble.
Regardless, the Cardinals aren’t the only team hot team placed in the Midwest Region.
Michigan had won seven straight before falling to No. 22 Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, while Duke advanced to the ACC title game, where it lost to No. 6 Virginia.
Then there’s Kentucky, which is starting to play like the team that began the season No. 1 in the nation. The Wildcats pounded LSU and Georgia in the SEC tournament, then came within a breath of knocking off Florida — the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed — in Sunday’s title game.
“It’s definitely a big confidence-booster,” said the Wildcats’ Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds in the 61-60 loss to the Gators. “We really are a brand new team and I think that building off that for the NCAA tournament is going to be big for us.”