ARLINGTON, Texas – At the appointed time for Gregg Marshall to accept his Associated Press national coach of the year award on Thursday, he was stuck in Texas traffic. Wichita State's coach would be delayed for 20 minutes or so. This was 11 days after a crushing loss to Kentucky ended his team's undefeated season, 11 days after one of the best stories of the year collapsed and still Wichita State was having trouble making it to the Final Four.
“I haven't watched our game yet,” Marshall said Thursday after he finally arrived at AT&T Stadium. “I'll do that some time this summer. It's a little bit too painful right now.”
The Shockers have already gone back to work getting ready for next season, but it's understandable if it's too soon for them to revisit their one loss from this season. After all, they became the first team ever to start a season 35-0 and were the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional but their bid to reach a second straight Final Four ended two weeks ago. Two other top-seeded teams -- Arizona and Virginia -- also failed to reach North Texas, and only one No. 2 seed (Wisconsin) is still alive. Meanwhile, there's an eight-loss team (Connecticut) on one side of the Final Four bracket and a 10-loss team (Kentucky) on the other. If the Huskies and Wildcats advance to the championship game it will be by far the lowest combined seeding for title game participants in the 36 years that seeds have been used. The tournament will once again be won by the team that plays the best for six games. But will it fall short of establishing who the best team in the country is?
Certainly there would be little objection if Florida wins the title. The to-ranked Gators have won 30 games in a row, have not lost since Dec. 2 and have two losses this season by a combined seven points, which came in true road games against fellow Final Four clubs Wisconsin and Connecticut.
And while Florida is ranked No. 1 overall by kenpom.com and is in the top 20 in both offensive (No. 18) and defensive efficiency (No. 1), the other three teams here are notably outside the top 20 in one category or the other: the Badgers are No. 4 offensively but No. 45 defensively, the Wildcats are No. 9 and No. 40, respectively, and the Huskies are No. 49 and No. 10. In fact, only one team ranks in the top 12 in both the offensive and defensive efficiency rankings according to that site: Wichita State. “We obviously would love to be here,” Marshall said. “I thought going into the tournament that there would be 15-20 teams which could have won the whole thing. There have been some great games and the four teams here are playing the best right now. They deserve to be here."
That might be most true of the team that vanquished Wichita State. “We got here through an absolute minefield and happened to not step on a mine,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team won the so-called Group of Death by eliminating the No. 1 (Wichita State), No. 4 (Louisville) and No. 2 (Michigan) teams in the Midwest region in its last three games. But should the Wildcats win a national championship on Monday, would anyone be convinced that they were the best team in the country? Would anyone say that of Connecticut if the Huskies cut down the nets? The team that wins two more games will be a deserving champion, but it may not be the best team. This tournament could be won by a team that will feel like an accidental passersby.
On Monday, as two teams prepare to play for a national title, Wichita State will begin individual workouts in pursuit of the next one. Marshall imagines his team will not be difficult to motivate. But it has been difficult to shake the disappointment. “It's a somber time,” Marshall said.
After he was done speaking, Marshall hustled to a waiting operations cart that would ferry him back to his car. He had a 3 p.m. event and had to drive to get there. Wichita State made it to the Final Four for just a few minutes, and that story was over before you knew it.
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