OMAHA, Neb.—After tending to his media responsibilities at CenturyLink Center on Thursday, Fred VanVleet moseyed through the Wichita State locker room with a purple bag of Skittles in hand. An expectant, sweet-toothed teammate caught his eye. So the Shockers’ point guard took two steps that way and began to extend the candy bag ... before he pulled it back and retreated to a corner stall along the opposite wall. It might be the only time this weekend that VanVleet does not deliver to Wichita State exactly what it wanted.
It required the combined might of NCAA tournament brackets and a willful performance by an All-America caliber guard, but Kansas will play Wichita State on Sunday. At last, a decades-old Sunflower State stalemate ends. At last, the Shockers are no longer standing on one side of the junior high gym, staring longingly across the dance floor, without so much as a glance or a nod in return. An 81-76 Round of 64 win over Indiana forced this basketball delight into existence, which makes it even sweeter.
Kansas would not give Wichita State what it has wanted since 1993, and with a season at stake, we can soon know if the Shockers should be careful what they wish for. “It’s a big-time game for (the state of) Kansas,” forward Tekele Cotton said. “I know our fans want to play them bad, and we do, too. It’s just another hump we have to get through to get to where we want to go to. We just have to get through Kansas.”
There are just 163 miles between the schools. There are also just 14 meetings on a basketball court between them, and none since Jan. 6, 1993. There is also the question of how much Wichita State needs this; it’s reflexive to assume that playing and beating Kansas, the in-state behemoth, offers validation. But it’s also inaccurate. On Sunday, the program that was most recently a Final Four participant will not be the one that helped invent the game. To frame this as a defining moment for the Shockers borders on ignorance, if not insult. They don’t need authentication.
What they’re after is a reckoning.
“It’s a pride thing,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s not going to cure cancer. It’s not going end world hunger. It’s just a basketball game that people have a lot of interest in, and now they get to see it.”
It is fair to include the Shockers among those interested in seeing this happen. They were intently interested even before downing the Hoosiers. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you,” guard Ron Baker said of the possible Kansas matchup, looming since Selection Sunday. “It’s been on my mind. It’s been on everybody’s minds.”
Baker grew up a Kansas fan, partial to Kirk Hinrich, pining to play for the Jayhawks one day. He will have to settle for playing against them. And to beat them, he will have to play better than he did against Indiana—he scored 15 points but shot just 3 of 13 en route. Baker’s backcourt mate, meanwhile, is the failsafe everyone expected before the season began.
VanVleet imposed himself upon the game brilliantly Friday. He squeezed the Hoosiers’ best offensive option, Yogi Ferrell, into irrelevance when it mattered, holding Indiana’s leading scorer without a point for almost 12 second-half minutes. On the other end, he orchestrated everything, matching a career high with 27 points and adding four assists. He had posted 20 or more points just four times this season, but if Wichita State was to knock down the door to its dream matchup with Kansas, it was VanVleet who would be the battering ram. “What we wanted to do is get him coming downhill off ball screens,” Marshall said, “and that’s exactly what we got.”
What the Shockers got was the VanVleet most expected to see for the duration of the season. He has not demonstrated the other-worldly efficiency he did a year ago—VanVleet’s overall shooting fell from 48.4% to 42.9%, and his offensive rating dipped from 134.9 to 123.8—but this had the feel of an awakening. When he flung a beautiful lead pass to freshman Zach Brown for a breakaway dunk and a six-point lead midway through the second half, VanVleet looked over his left shoulder at the Indiana bench like someone who wondered what futile answer was coming next.
This resurgence, VanVleet’s personal reckoning, is well timed. Kansas may be flawed and limited, but Wichita State is not without vulnerabilities. It cannot afford for VanVleet to be one of them on Sunday, not if it is to get what it is after.
“For us, it just means whoever wins goes to the Sweet 16,” VanVleet said. “Anything other than that, we’ll leave for the fans and whoever else.”
As he sat on a chair outside the locker room Friday, Marshall demonstrated no angst or anger when asked why it took so long to get his program on the same floor with the Jayhawks.
“He’s got to do what’s best for his program, he’s said it many times,” the Shockers coach said of his Kansas counterpart, Bill Self. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and if it ever works out, it works out. It’s the same thing with Creighton. But it takes two to tango. It’s not something we’ve stressed about. We want to play the best teams that will play us because it helps us get in position where if we do well, we get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. That’s not their issue. They don’t need that. So I understand.”
A year earlier, Kentucky greeted Wichita State in the Round of 32 and ended the Shockers’ perfect season after 35 wins. On Friday, it was Indiana on the first day of the tournament. Now it’s Kansas, and given the luminous names his program confronts at every postseason turn, Marshall joked that maybe the Lakers and Celtics are next.
Whatever comes next, though, won’t be the same, because it won’t be the end of a 23-year game of tag. Wichita State won Friday and got exactly what it wanted. Kansas is it.