ATLANTA — There’s no way Wichita State is going to shock anybody next season.
The gritty team from the Missouri Valley was picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the conference this year, a fairly safe guess considering the Shockers lost all of their starters from a team that earned a No. 5 seed to the NCAA tournament last season.
But with an entirely new group running the show, WSU head coach Gregg Marshall’s crew slowly came together this season, picking up steam once they got healthy late in the year and getting on the kind of roll that Butler and VCU made famous before them.
The result was Wichita State’s first trip to the Final Four since 1965.
It ended with a blown second-half lead and a disheartening loss to Louisville on Saturday night, but with leading scorer Cleanthony Early and several other key contributors returning, it’s a good bet the Shockers will be tough again next season. It’s an even safer assumption that their opponents will be ready for them.
“You know, it’s hard to lose your last game. Everyone does it except for three or four tournament winners,” Marshall said. “This one is especially hard because of the run we went on. We set a school record for wins, in the Final Four for the second time in school history.
“But we didn’t say, ‘Goodbye,’ ” Marshall said. “We didn’t say, ‘This is it.’ This is just the beginning. This is just a beginning for us. A lot of good players in that locker room, all they’re talking about right now is working hard this summer and getting better.”
The Shockers’ tremendous run is sure to make Marshall a hot coaching candidate, but the former coach of Winthrop has said repeatedly that he’s happy in Wichita, and that it would take the right opportunity at just the right time to every pry him loose.
Especially with the kind of momentum the Shockers are riding.
They beat VCU early in the year, knocked off Creighton — the pride of the Valley most of the year — in a mid-season tilt at Koch Arena in Wichita, and then squeaked into the tourney as a No. 9 seed paired in the same region as Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in The AP Top 25 at the end of the regular season.
The Shockers were never intimidated, though, and they proved the stage was never too big for them.
They rolled through Pittsburgh, and then raised eyebrows when they busted brackets with a win over the ’Zags. They headed to Los Angeles for the West Regional semifinals and took care of La Salle, and then held off Ohio State down the stretch to reach the Georgia Dome.
It looked for a while as if their dream run would continue, too.
Wichita State managed to take a 26-25 lead over Louisville at halftime, and extended it to 12 in the second half, only for the Cardinals’ intense full-court pressure to finally set in.
The Shockers wound up losing 72-68, sending Louisville into the title game against Michigan, where the Cards captured the national crown with an 82-76 victory.
“We have to be appreciative and understand what it takes to get here,” said Fred VanVleet, who along with fellow freshman Ron Baker was critical to the Shockers’ postseason charge.
“It’s a huge steppingstone and something we can look back on and work for,” VanVleet said. “Guys that are coming back, now we have motivation for next year, because no matter what, we can sit back and say, ‘We didn’t make it.’ So that will be good motivation for us.”
There will be pieces to replace, of course. There almost always is.
The Shockers’ heart and soul, all-energy forward Carl Hall, will have graduated, and senior guard Malcolm Armstead — whose poise was so crucial in March — will be gone. Role players Ehimen Orukpe, Demetric Williams and Kadeem Coleby will also move on with their lives.
But there’s plenty of production coming back, led by Early, the junior forward who made just about every power conference coach look silly for overlooking him coming out of junior college when he had 24 points and 10 rebounds against the Cardinals in the national semifinals.
Baker finished with 11 points and eight rebounds for the Shockers, Tekele Cotton — just a sophomore — had nine points, and VanVleet wound up playing 23 minutes in the Final Four.
All of them will be back, none of them sneaking up on anybody.
“We’re still not satisfied,” Cotton said. “We’re going to come back next year, come at it again, and work hard during the summer and get better. We’ll get right back here next year.”