Tyler Brown's late free throws sealed Illinois State's upset of Wichita State. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
ST. LOUIS -- John Wilkins, the 6-foot-9 Frenchman whom Illinois State coaches refer to, creatively, as "Frenchy," could only guess what was happening. He sat alone in the Redbirds' locker room after being ejected with 11:59 left in their Missouri Valley Conference semifinal against top-seeded (and No. 15-ranked) Wichita State. Not realizing he could turn on the TV to catch the in-house feed, he just watched the seconds tick off the game clock on the wall and tried to gauge the amount of noise Redbirds fans were making. If the ISU section directly above him roared, he figured it was good news.
He heard four such roars over the game's final 6.4 seconds: One when junior guard Tyler Brown hit a free throw to tie the game at 64-64, a second when Brown put Illinois State ahead, 65-64, and a third when Shockers guard Toure' Murry clanked a pull-up jumper off the rim with 1.1 seconds left. The last, and the loudest, came when Garrett Stutz -- the WSU center with whom Wilkins had tangled and argued, earning two technical fouls and a disqualification -- left a turnaround jumper short at the buzzer.
Soon after, a team manager burst through the locker-room door, ending Frenchy's solitary confinement, and gave him a hug. "That," Wilkins said, "is how I was sure we won." The Redbirds, the No. 4 seed in Arch Madness, were on to the finals -- and a win over No. 2-seeded Creighton away from making the Missouri Valley a three-bid league. Illinois State came to St. Louis as a national non-entity, a team that finished 9-9 in league play and was unlikely to even make the NIT. Now the Redbirds matter in Arch Madness and March Madness at large, as they're on the verge of stealing a bid away from an unlucky bubble team.
"Shock the world!" Brown, who took detours through Morehead State and Marshalltown (Iowa) Community College before arriving in Normal, yelled once he was in the locker room. Later, as he reflected on his 25-point game in the press conference, he said, "I've never been a part of something this big, something that means so much to a lot of people."
His coach, Tim Jankovich, sat next to Brown and beamed. Jankovich said he could not possibly be more proud of his team; the day before, after beating Northern Iowa, he'd joked, "Isn't it great that the prize for winning this game is you get to play Wichita in the next round?" The Shockers had swept the regular-season series and only lost once this calendar year, in triple-overtime to Drake on Jan. 28. They routed Indiana State, 72-48, in their first Arch Madness quarterfinal on Friday. Wichita State came to St. Louis looking like an unstoppable force, but it left with its coach, Gregg Marshall, seething through a press conference in which these were his final remarks:
"How can you learn from a loss? Well, you let it sit in the pit of your stomach until it makes you violently ill. Then you expel that feeling and then you go back to work. That's all you can do. We're not playing tomorrow."
Unlike last season, when the Shockers were relegated to the NIT (and won it all), they're safely in the NCAA tournament with a dangerous, senior-dominated team. The problem is that this loss likely cost them a shot at a No. 4 seed, and could drop them all the way to a No. 6, depending on what happens over the course of the next week. Many pundits (including myself) view them as a darkhorse Final Four team, but the road to New Orleans just got more difficult.
It wasn't really the seeding drop that made Marshall sick to his stomach; it was more the way Saturday's semifinal played out, as a physical battle in which Illinois State finished with a 22-17 free-throw advantage. Wilkins' chippiness -- he was a one-man French Resistance, committing a few war crimes against the 7-foot Stutz, who earned a technical of his own, and openly questioned why more fouls hadn't been whistled -- had WSU's coach particularly bothered. "I saw some strange things today," Marshall said. "It's pretty tough to win when you see some strange things like I saw today. I'm looking forward to going and playing on a neutral court. I like my chances."
St. Louis' Scottrade Center is technically a neutral court, but the fact that Marshall has yet to win this tournament in his five years as the Shockers' coach has led him to believe otherwise. This is not only his best team at Wichita, it's statistically one of the best mid-majors of the decade, as it ranks No. 8 in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com. On Saturday, though, it saw what can happen when it runs into a desperate opponent, whose only chance was to match the Shockers' physicality and try to survive a slugfest. The loser shot 34.9 percent from the field; the winner shot 33.9 percent and somehow managed to come back from trailing by 13 points with 18:38 left in the second half.
"Most people probably turned their TVs off, after we were down 10, thinking [Wichita State] was going to win," Brown said. "But we're not that type of team." Illinois State had just enough grit to pull off the biggest upset yet in conference tournament play. Its Desperation Act rolls on into Sunday, against another team -- Creighton -- that already has an NCAA tournament bid in the bag. Bubble teams everywhere are cringing.