THE WINNING had long since become routine, but in mid-March, Wichita State's daily lives fell into a pattern. The Shockers took up residence in St. Louis, spending a total of nine days in the same downtown redbrick Westin, the first four for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the rest for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Each day they met in the same place—the hotel's street-level, wood-paneled Cupples Ballroom—to eat meals, go over scouting reports and watch film, during which they mostly sat in the same spots, with shooting guard Ron Baker occupying a front-row seat to the left of the digital projector and point guard Fred VanVleet to the right. The Shockers played five straight games at the Scottrade Center, four blocks from the Westin, and for each game they used the same small locker room, dressing under its low, grey-tiled ceiling, sitting on its purple metal folding chairs and even keeping the same locker assignments, with VanVleet and defensive stopper Tekele Cotton in the abbreviated row nearest the showers. Each game they were a No. 1 seed, and each game they were chasing history: At 34--0 they were the first team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1990--91; the next goal was to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1975--76. It wasn't until Wichita State's last morning in St. Louis—Sunday, March 23—that the order of things felt disrupted.
When his players filed out of the ballroom after a film session that morning, coach Gregg Marshall stayed behind. Their round-of-32 opponent was Kentucky, a No. 8 seed that in no way resembled a No. 8 seed, with eight legitimate NBA prospects. A preseason national title favorite, the Wildcats finished the regular season just 22--9 but had come alive in March, nearly upsetting Florida, the only team ranked ahead of Wichita State in the AP poll, one week earlier. Marshall was contemplating an identity crisis. Kentucky was the first major-conference team the Shockers had faced in three months, and it was a juggernaut. "I'm a 1 seed," Marshall said after a long sigh, "and I feel like David."
He laughed when told that Chadrack Lufile, a Shockers senior forward and the son of a minister in Burlington, Ont., had said they needed to "come out with a strong hand, like David and Goliath at the same time." Marshall figured he might as well embrace that narrative, so when his 35--0 team reassembled in the locker room, with less than 10 minutes until tip-off, this is the last of what he said:
"Are you satisfied? Are you satisfied that we're the last team playing in the state of Kansas? Are you satisfied with the number 35? ... Are we satisfied that everybody's saying that we're not going to win this game? Are we satisfied that, 'Hey, it was a nice little story, but we're not going to beat Kentucky?' O.K.? I say, if they [were to] change the uniforms ... they would be talking about us right now as one of the best college basketball teams in the history of this great game. Do you hear anybody saying that? No. Because they don't expect you to come out and do these things. We have proven all year long that we can do this. This is an unbelievable opportunity. You've got to decide if you want to be David or Goliath. Or both."
HERE'S SOMETHING for you to decide: Can the greatness of a game overcome the unjust circumstances in which it was played? Because Wichita State--Kentucky was as great as it was wrong, and even nine months later, it's hard to separate the two. "It was the most mis-seeded game I've ever coached in," says Wildcats coach John Calipari. "[The Shockers] did not deserve to have to play us then. They had too good of a season." Marshall, likewise, remains displeased with the work of the NCAA tournament selection committee and its first-year chairman, Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, who jammed Wichita State, Duke, Michigan, Louisville, Kentucky and Tennessee—six of the nation's top 13 teams in adjusted efficiency—into the Midwest Region and then made the risible claim that "we've achieved balance."
The resulting drama was riveting. The Shockers and the Wildcats had no choice but to fight, and ample motivation. WSU still had, as Marshall liked to call them, "haters," who dismissed 35--0 as the product of a cupcake schedule; Calipari, who started five freshmen, felt as if his media enemies already "had their finger hovering over the SEND button" on screeds calling his one-and-done model a disaster after a trip to the NIT (in 2013) and this potential first-weekend exit from the NCAAs. And yet what happened in St. Louis proved that not one, but both teams were heavyweights.
The game opened with point guards—one a maligned, five-star freshman, the other a calm, barely recruited sophomore—tussling for control. Calipari boasted for much of the month about a secret "tweak" he had made that changed the course of his team, and, as was his intention, fans and media became obsessed with trying to solve the mystery. "Which was ridiculous," says forward Willie Cauley-Stein, "because all he did was tell Andrew [Harrison] to be a point guard—to find people open and get them shots. That was the entire tweak." As simple as it was, the mentality change worked for Harrison, who took command first, attacking VanVleet off the bounce and helping Kentucky take a 19--15 lead.
The 5'11" VanVleet gave up seven inches to Harrison and cared little about being an anonymous recruit—"I'm more of a guy who wants to go under the radar," he said. He took his time before countering and found an opening at the 9:42 mark, picking Harrison's pocket to set up a fast-break dunk for forward Darius Carter that altered the momentum. By the time VanVleet fleeced Harrison again to set up another dunk—a breathtaking, soaring jam by 6'8" Cleanthony Early with 46.2 seconds left in the half—the Shockers had a 37--28 lead.
The game then shifted into a battle of stars. Wildcats freshman power forward Julius Randle showed why he would be a lottery pick: Over the first nine minutes of the second half, he used his power game to almost single-handedly turn a 40--31 Wichita lead into a 53--49 Kentucky advantage. Early, a senior forward, responded by hitting ballsy jumpers in the faces of Kentucky defenders, attacking the basket at will and committing no turnovers. He scored 16 of Wichita's final 22 points and finished with 31. It was such a transcendent performance that it elevated his NBA stock from probably undrafted to going 34th to the Knicks; had Calipari pleading with his team, Can anyone guard this guy?; and even had other Shockers in awe. "I looked in Clee's eyes that day, and he was absolutely fearless," says Cotton. "I knew I was watching him have the game of his life."
Lufile, who met Early at a junior college All-America camp just outside of St. Louis in the summer of 2011, says facing the Wildcats—and what had been called the greatest freshman class of all time—had deep meaning for Wichita State's band of outsiders. "Us juco guys, we felt like we were [future] NBA players who just took different paths," Lufile says. "Beating Kentucky was the way to prove it."
They were doing their part to create a classic. Early seemed to be everywhere. Randle went into Hulk-mode on the offensive glass. Andrew Harrison's twin Aaron—foreshadowing his heroics later in the tournament—banked in a three from the left wing, and Baker countered with a banked-in trey of his own in the final minute. Kentucky's freshmen calmly made 13 of their last 16 free throws, and the game came down to one play with 3.2 seconds left.
The Shockers trailed 78--76, with Cotton inbounding in front of their bench, almost even with the top of the key. They ran a set called Havlicek, which had three options out of a bunched formation near the free throw line. Number 1 was a backscreen for a lob to Early, but he misread his defender and broke off his cut, fading to the far side of the three-point line, where a pass to him was too risky. Number 2 was Baker, on the near right wing, but he was covered. Number 3 was VanVleet, who popped out near the top of the key, received the inbounds and dribbled right off a pick from Carter. Kentucky was switching screens, and this put Cauley-Stein on VanVleet, who only had time to do one thing. The visual—a 5'11" guard hoisting a 25-foot shot over the outstretched arm of a 7-footer—seemed to clarify who was David and who was Goliath. But the result contradicted the narrative. "I thought I hadn't done enough to block his sight of the rim, and that it was going in," says Cauley-Stein. "But then I turned around, saw it go off to the right, and it was like 1,000 pounds went off my shoulders."
THE PLAYER who has watched Wichita State--Kentucky the most—or so he believes—was not on the floor at the buzzer. Before Lufile goes to sleep in his apartment in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he's a reserve for the Heat's D-League franchise, he often views clips from that game. He watches because the result hit him so hard: When the dejected Shockers retreated to their locker room, he shut himself in a small bathroom. He shouted through his tears—"We were gonna win this whole s---!"—and kicked a garbage can. It took Baker, Early and VanVleet to coax him out so that Marshall could address the team. "If we're sad, we're sad because it's over," their coach told them. "Not because of the way we played, not because of anything else. Because it was so much fun and such a ride, and it's over."
Lufile, who scored six points and committed four turnovers in 17 minutes, can't stop agonizing over things he couldn't change. He wants to go back in time, be a more reliable teammate, not one who was late to meetings or in the coaching staff's doghouse—then, maybe they would have trusted him to play more minutes, and maybe he could have kept Randle off the boards, and maybe he and his ex-juco brethren could have made history as undefeated national champs. "That was supposed to be our tournament," he says. "Our moment." He watches to remind himself how he'll feel if another season ends without him doing all that was possible. The game was so good that it still gives him goose bumps, but it never leaves him satisfied.