Ron Baker and Wichita State dropped La Salle to cement a meeting with Ohio State in the Elite Eight. (SI)
LOS ANGELES – Florida Gulf Coast might have a beach, but Wichita State … well, "Wichita is known as the air capital of the United States," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall told reporters the day before his team's Sweet 16 game here against La Salle. Airplane manufacturing is a big deal in Kansas' biggest city … but so is basketball. And Saturday night, Wichita State will play its biggest basketball game in more than 30 years.
The ninth-seeded Shockers did not need a barrage of threes to advance this round like they did last weekend in upsetting West top seed Gonzaga, nor was there any late-game drama. Marshall's team simply ran past the undersized and largely overwhelmed Explorers, jumping to a 16-point halftime lead and extending it to 22 early in the second half en route to an easy 72-58 victory. On Saturday, Wichita State (29-8), the Missouri Valley's second-place team during the regular season, will take on No. 2 seed Ohio State (29-7), which tied for second in the Big Ten, in its first Elite Eight game since 1981.
The Shockers continue to show off their surprising depth and frontcourt athleticism. Guard Malcolm Armstead led the way with 18 points, but as is its hallmark, Wichita State got contributions from 10 different players. La Salle's four-guard lineup did not fare well against the Shockers' brawnier squad, which dominated the boards (47-29) and limited Explorers guard Ramon Galloway to 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
With 1:28 left and the game well in hand, Carl Hall and Ron Baker -- the star of the Gonzaga win -- walked off the court to a rousing applause from the impressive yellow-clad contingent that filled two lower sections of the Staples Center and parts of several others. The Sweet 16 was not unfamiliar territory for them; former coach Mark Turgeon took Wichita State this far in 2006. But that Shockers team won the MVC in a particularly memorable year for that league. As a No. 10 seed, they fell to fellow mid-major George Mason in Washington, D.C.
This team had no such trouble with its upstart opponent, La Salle, which may well have worn out from playing four games in three different cities over the past nine days (it has not been back to campus since leaving for the First Four last Monday). The Shockers now turn their attention to Ohio State, which notched its second straight last-second victory earlier Thursday against Arizona.
Meanwhile, most of the country will likely turn its attention back to that other Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, which plays Friday against Florida and has captivated basketball fans with its high-flying style. Wichita may not carry a sexy moniker like Dunk City, but it's got a darn good basketball team that has dominated two East Coast tourney foes (Pitt and La Salle) and upset the best of the West (Gonzaga). If it can top a powerhouse from the Midwest, it will earn an all-important trip South for the Final Four in Atlanta.