LOS ANGELES -- Blame Butler. Or VCU. Or George Mason before that. The Wichita State Shockers are playing for a spot in the Final Four here Saturday, and yet much of the sporting public is ... well, not shocked.
Welcome to college basketball in 2013. You might not have guessed which mid-major was going to make a deep tourney run this particular March (if you did, you're presumably winning your office pool), but you're not surprised that it happened. Heck, compared to Florida Gulf Coast, the previously unheard-of 15th seed that was knocked out by Florida, but took down Georgetown and San Diego State, Wichita State -- a Sweet 16 team in 2006, an Elite Eight team in 1981 and Final Four team back in the '60s -- might as well be Kansas in terms of familiarity.
Perhaps the potential hysteria over Wichita State's run has been dampened in part by its path to date -- Pittsburgh in a toss-up 8-9 game; Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed that many felt didn't deserve a No. 1 seed; and unheralded No. 13 seed La Salle. Beating No. 2 seed and 2012 Final Four team Ohio State would lift Wichita State into a whole other stratosphere of credibility.
And yet, it still won't carry nearly the shock factor of George Mason beating UConn to reach the 2006 Final Four or the drama of Butler coming within a last-second miracle of Duke in the 2010 title game
"Those things happen more readily now, and I don't know why," said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall. "I'm not smart enough to figure all of that out."
Much has been written about the factors behind the flattening of college basketball -- mainly, stars ditching the high-majors early for the NBA, while mid-majors grow and develop a core of starters for three or four years. That's certainly the recipe Marshall has followed for much of his 15 seasons as head coach, first at Winthrop (1998-2007) and now Wichita State, producing a combined nine NCAA tournament appearances.
The strange thing is, this particular team does not follow that mold.
The Shockers lost their top five scorers from last season's squad, which won the Missouri Valley, earned a No. 5 seed in the Dance, and would have made a far more logical Elite Eight candidate. (They lost to 12th seed VCU in their first tourney game.) Their top three scorers, forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall and point guard Malcolm Armstead, are in their first or second years in Wichita jerseys after transferring from junior colleges or, in Armstead's case, Oregon. Three-point marksman Ron Baker is a redshirt freshman. Sophomore starting guard Tekele Cotton averaged 9.9 minutes as a freshman.
Meanwhile, eight games into the season, the Shockers lost then-starting guard Evan Wessel to a season-ending injury. Baker, whose timely three-pointers helped topple Gonzaga, missed 21 games. Hall, who shredded La Salle inside, missed seven.
Yet Wichita State won at VCU early in the season, beat Iowa, finished second in its league behind Creighton and nearly topped the Bluejays in the conference title game. Since entering the NCAAs, their physical frontcourt, tough perimeter defense and unusual depth have been on full display.
"I'd be lying if I said that I thought we would be in the Elite Eight coming into the current season," said associate head coach Chris Jans. "But I thought we could contend in the Valley. We weren't saying it [publicly] but we were giddy inside the program. We were picked fourth in the Valley but we knew the kind of players we had sitting out [last year]. We used it as a motivator with our guys."
"No one expected us to be very good this year," said senior guard Demetric Williams, a two-year starter who relinquished his job to Baker when the tourney started . "Everyone thought Wichita State was going to have a rebuilding year."
They don't rebuild at Wichita; they reload.
Twice now, Marshall has built and maintained programs that became annual contenders in their respective conferences. He's rarely mentioned in the same breath as Mark Few, Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart, though that will change in a hurry if Wichita State reaches the Final Four. Already, he's answering questions about the vacant UCLA job, what with his team currently playing in the same city.
But just as it's no longer a surprise to see mid-majors in the Elite Eight, it's no longer a no-brainer that coaches like Marshall, Stevens or Smart would jump if a prestigious program like UCLA comes calling. For one thing, the disparity in resources isn't as vast as you might think. Marshall noted late Thursday that he already makes "seven figures" (his last reported salary was $900,000 plus incentives). His team plays in a sold-out 10,512-seat arena. He recruits by private plane.
"I've been offered jobs for $2 million [a year] and it hasn't swayed me," he said. "... I like to win. If I can win, I'm happy. If you're paying me $2, $3 million and I go home at night and we're losing, it's not fun."
You don't have to be at UCLA or Indiana to win (and you'll likely get fired quickly if you lose). Those programs still get first crack at the McDonald's All-Americans, but as Gonzaga/Butler/VCU have shown, you don't need those players to win in the tourney. There are plenty of other good ones to go around. Marshall has found quite a few on this year's team by mining junior colleges, while Baker was a largely unrecruited in-state star at tiny Scott City. Hall missed two years of basketball due to heart arrhythmia but Marshall stuck by him.
"A lot of players on my team had to take a different route," said Armstead. "I feel like we've got high-major guys in that locker room that just had to come to a mid- major."
They certainly don't carry the vibe of a happy-to-be-here feel-good team. Their locker room after the La Salle game was, in a word, boring. Like they expected to be here all along.
"It's not, 'Oh my god, is this really happening. Are we dreaming?'" said Jans. "Right now they're really just focused on the game plan."
The game plan for Ohio State likely starts with slowing down star DeShaun Thomas (whom Marshall called -- as a compliment -- a "bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker") and not getting frazzled by Aaron Craft's defense. The Shockers will come at the Buckeyes in waves, force them to take bad shots, prevent them from grabbing offensive rebounds.
It will be an upset, no doubt, if Wichita State prevails, but arguably no more shocking than Syracuse beating Indiana, Marquette beating Miami or Michigan handling Kansas. All those inevitable puns on their nickname will likely be overstating things.
"We want to make history in our program," said Williams, whose team is attempting to go one rung farther than Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr did in 1981 (losing to No. 1 seed LSU in the Elite Eight).
"After we won the game to go to the Sweet 16, we were happy, but now we see how far we can actually go," said Williams. "We believe we're actually a good team, can actually go to the Final Four and compete for the national championship. Even though we're a mid-major, everybody in this locker room does not look at ourselves as a mid-major."
Why should they? If they win, the Shockers will become the fourth mid-major in four years to reach the Final Four. The distinction grows less relevant with each passing year.