DAYTON, Ohio — For once, Gregg Marshall didn’t have a handle on his team. On Sunday the Shockers had gathered in the Champions Club, a 3,500-square-foot lounge in Koch Arena, to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. After four years of assured inclusion, on this Selection Sunday there was drama: At 25–8, coming off a loss to Northern Iowa for the Missouri Valley Conference’s auto-bid, Wichita State had spent eight days in the torturous purgatory of the so-called bubble. And yet when the Shockers’ name showed up on the screen, slotted to play Vanderbilt in Dayton in the First Four, the team’s reaction was ... joyless. Stoic. Not much of a reaction at all, really. Their coach was left wondering. Was it disappointment? Nerves? Something else?
And so when the Shockers gathered at the end of the next day’s practice, Marshall singled out one player: Anton Grady, a senior forward who is one of his top reserves. Grady had played three seasons in four years at Cleveland State, where he also missed one season with a medical redshirt after the second and third knee surgeries of his career. While the Shockers were making their Final Four run in 2013, entering the tournament undefeated in 2014, and reaching last season’s Sweet 16, Grady had yet to reach the tourney once. Last spring, film degree in hand, Grady left a starring role on his hometown team to come off the Shockers’ bench for a shot at the postseason. Knowing this, Marshall asked him a question: Had he ever been to the NCAA tournament? (No.) Was he excited? “And he lit up,” Marshall said Monday night. “His excitement then permeated through the team. And I think that we’ll be ready to play.”
Some 30 hours later, Grady stood at center court of his first NCAA game, holding the ball to the sky as the final horn sounded on a 70–50 win. Three months after an in-game spinal concussion left him temporarily paralyzed and put his playing career in doubt, Grady had scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds and kept his team’s stagnant offense afloat in what had once been a close game. He hugged senior guard Fred VanVleet. He practically floated over to a post-game radio interview. He ran through the tunnel to the locker room letting out a triumphant, guttural growl, then sat at his locker unwrapping his ankle, his voice wavering as he tried to sum up his emotions.
“An amazing feeling,” he said. “Five years of college basketball ... to finally get what you came to college for ... it’s all paid off and it’s all worth it.”
He was a reminder of March’s unending supply of emotion and novelty, even at a program from which so many have (at least recently, and for good reason) come to expect so much. Having exploded into the national consciousness during the careers of VanVleet and backcourt mate Ron Baker—key figures on the ‘13 tourney run as freshmen, then stars for two 30-win seasons—there would have been a sense of disappointment at the season’s beginning (they ranked 10th in the preseason AP poll) for the Shockers to have ended up in Dayton at all. But this season was derailed early by an injury to VanVleet’s hamstring, which kept him out of a critical non-conference stretch during which the team went 1–3, then dealt further blows by subpar losses in conference play. The Shockers became a Rorschach test, beloved by advanced metrics but with only one marquee win, at home against Utah in December, on which to hang their hats. Many figured that without the resume they were unlikely to—or should not—be given one of the NCAA tournament’s 37 at-large bids. The committee offered a compromise: You’re invited to the dance, but you have to win to reach the main stage.
Their draw was a perplexing Vanderbilt team, also ranked in the preseason, that had spent the season as a puzzle coach Kevin Stallings never quite assembled into the contender on the front of the box. The Commodores’ strength came in their size, a trio of seven-footers that they paired with a smooth-stroking NBA prospect in sophomore guard Wade Baldwin IV. One of those seven-footers, the 245-pound junior Damian Jones, entered the game averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds. He figured prominently in both NBA mock drafts and the Shockers’ defensive game plan, which centered on fronting him in the post, then shifting to push him off the block when a pass was lobbed. “That was our first star,” Shockers forward Shaquille Morris said. “As a whole team, Coach said, ‘Everybody is guarding Jones.’”
The result was part of an artless, clamped-down first half that saw each team score 30 points and combine to shoot 36% from the field. Jones missed his only two field goal attempts and all four of his free throws. Both teams defended aggressively. Both paid for it in whistles, going into halftime with 13 fouls apiece. “I feel like it could have been more physical,” said Morris, who finished with four points, three rebounds and three fouls in nine minutes. “I love physicality. If anybody wants to bang bodies with me, we can do that all day.”
Against Vanderbilt’s 2–3 zone and full-court pressure, the Shockers’ own offense appeared out of whack. They missed all five of their first-half three-pointers and Baker, who averages 14.2 points, did not score a field goal in the half. Into the void stepped Grady, with a team-high nine of Wichita State’s opening 30 points. “He carried us a little bit for a stretch when we really needed it, when our offense was slow,” said senior Evan Wessel. “He came out with a jump shot and was able to get a couple layups and was able to attack.”
It was after halftime that the game was won. Baldwin, Vanderbilt’s talented sophomore guard, had said the day before the game that he had first learned of Baker and VanVleet—each of whom has earned All-America honorable mention nods—when the Commodores began their game preparation. In the opening minutes of the second half, the pair offered a proper introduction. First Baker slapped away a backcourt pass and broke away for a finger-roll; next VanVleet, who briefly left the game in the first half after busting open his right eyebrow, drained a three in the shot clock’s dying seconds, then hit another. After a timeout, he added a third. Suddenly a halftime tie had turned into an 11-point Shockers lead.
“They did what they do,” Baldwin said afterward. “I watched a lot of tape on them. They do their style every game and it works for them. That’s why they're a good team.”
The Commodores did not go quietly, answering with their own run to cut their deficit back to two. (It was during this stretch that Jones would score for the first time. He finished with five points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field and 1-of-7 from the line.) But then the Shockers would go back to doing Shockers things, working through long possessions for open looks that turned into two and three points—in the second half, they made seven of 14 treys—then denying Vanderbilt the same. By the 2:21 mark of the second half, after Grady hit a pair of free throws, Wichita State led by 17. The Commodores called off their press. It was now a matter of time.
It was then that Grady realized that he would be doing the most Shocker thing of all: He would be moving on in the tournament, to face sixth-seeded Arizona. Finally, when Baker handed him the ball while the win became official, Grady could let it out. He pointed. He smiled. He hugged. He growled. He returned to the locker room and talked about how “the worst week of my life”—the one spent wondering whether this game would come at all—had turned into the greatest moment of his career.
He looked at his phone: 21 unread texts, 17 missed calls and voicemails, with perhaps still more waiting once he was back within range of service. The device had spent much of the previous 48 hours set to “do not disturb” as the Cleveland native fended off an onslaught of ticket requests from friends and family in the area. With the help of teammates, he had scraped together 25 tickets to distribute to loved ones. Some 10 or 15 more had bought their own. Now they waited outside, pinging his phone with messages. “It’s ridiculous!” Grady said, sounding far from annoyed. “They keep texting me, ‘Don’t take all day.’” It was a welcome problem, worth the wait.