CHICAGO – During the national anthem, sung by a Loyola senior known only as Frankie, Chadrack Lufile yawned. He and the other Wichita State Shockers spanned the Gentile Center floor with emotionless faces, and they remained there until the R.O.T.C. crew carried the flags off the court.
As they did, a few Loyola players took tentative steps forward, approaching the team on the other side, looking for a handshake, a fist-bump, a nod acknowledging their existence.
Wichita State turned and filed toward the bench, oblivious to everything but the work to do. They ended the night as the last undefeated team in America, and everyone else will have to care about that for them.
“It’s like, hey, it feels good, but back to work,” senior forward Cleanthony Early said after a rather perfunctory 88-74 win over Loyola. “It means nothing if we don’t get to where we want to get.”
Is it time now to appreciate, unconditionally, the Wichita State Shockers? Can we watch the Syracuse machine falter Wednesday against one of the worst major-conference clubs in the country and agree it’s really, really hard to play 28 games without losing one, no matter who you are and no matter who you play?
There are now 19 teams who have done it, ever. And even before the Shockers hit the locker room Wednesday, their supporters besieged them with the news of Boston College’s upset in upstate New York. They wondered like everyone else how it felt. That, of course, mattered less than how Wichita State felt before the game, and how it will feel before the next one.
Every single night in college basketball is a potential loss, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said after the game. In between, the noise can overwhelm a team and numb its concentration. Wichita State is impeccably good at being hard of hearing except where it matters, and that is to be applauded without reservation. Take a poll in Syracuse on that if you’re not sure.
“These guys are a dream for any coach,” Marshall said. “First of all, they’re self-motivated. I’m secondary motivation for these young men. They’re born to win. They do everything we ask them to do on daily basis. They work hard every day. They just grind. Just like the coaching staff. They grind, because they want to be special.”
They don’t lose their way off the court in the same way they seem impenetrably disaffected on it. The 4,577 in attendance didn’t make for a swirling caldron on Wednesday, in part because Wichita State fans occupied a good portion of Gentile Arena. But it was enough to be a little uncomfortable, the “Play Angry” signs versus Sister Jean’s pregame prayer, beseeching her Lord to bless the referees so they would make fair calls for both sides.
Still, at virtually no point did the Shockers appear off-stride. Early, the leading scorer, picked up two first-half fouls and played just seven minutes before the break. Wichita State led by seven anyway. The lead soon ballooned to double-digits after halftime, and when Loyola pushed, the Shockers bloodlessly shoved back. Early was beat on a long pass for an and-one that made it all 11 point game with five and a half minutes left…and he promptly scored the next five points for Wichita State to reopen a 16-point edge.
Rarely did the Shockers’ facial expressions betray even a hint of worry, and even then just barely. After an offensive foul with 13 minutes left, sophomore guard Ron Baker furrowed his brow and shook his head in disbelief. This qualified as a tantrum. Point guard Fred VanVleet walking to Baker and offering a handshake and a reminder of “Defense, defense” qualified as an intervention.
“It’s in us,” Early said. “That’s the type of guys we want to be, that’s the type of guys we look up to, people who have been in those tough situations. My brother passing away, Fred’s Dad, Tekele (Cotton’s) Dad – there certain things you overcame in life to get to where you are now that nobody every really knows about. The fact that we’re playing a basketball game, and what, the score’s close? We did this before. Went to the Final Four. Thousands of people screaming for us, against us. How are you going to handle yourself? You going to act like you didn’t do it before?”
Baker giving a sarcastic thumbs-up to the student section chanting “sixth-grade haircut” while he shot a pair of late free throws represented the brazen showmanship portion of the competition. The Shockers come, see and conquer, and that is just about all.
“They're who you want to be,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “That’s who everybody is chasing.”
Wichita State’s chase? Eradication of the flaws in its perfection. An example: On Wednesday, VanVleet finished 6-of-6 from the floor and 10-of-10 from the line for 22 points, adding eight rebounds and six assists against just one turnover. He described it as atonement for his performance against Loyola on Jan. 28. “I take responsibility for the first game,” VanVleet said, as if reliving a nightmare. “I played really uninspired.”
He was referring to a 12-point win.
Wichita State now pursues the best version of perfection, and unapologetically believes it possible.
“We can go all the way,” Marshall said. “When you get into the NCAA tournament, it takes a little luck, it takes good draw, good pairings, it takes playing well. If we play well, and we get the right draw, we can go as far as anyone else in country. You see Syracuse tonight lose to Boston College, and Arizona has lost to Arizona State, and Florida has lost a couple games, and we could easily lose Saturday. But we also have the ability to play deep in the tournament. I don’t set the odds, but I think the odds for us are as good as maybe two handfuls of teams to win the whole thing.”
With 39.2 seconds left and the end-of-bench players checking in, a new set of signs replaced the Play Angry placards behind the Shockers’ bench: Three sheets of white printer paper with 28-0 emblazoned on them. The Shockers are now alone in a singular chase for utter flawlessness, and that is their new burden to bear.
They know it. As Marshall reached the scorer’s table for a postgame interview, hardly three minutes after the final horn sounded, he picked up a headset and asked, “Syracuse lost? Really?” Marshall then shook his head ever so slightly. It was a spasm of recognition: Every night can be a loss for anyone, anywhere, including the last undefeated team in America. But as the Shockers’ coach would say later, they’d just as soon win them all.