Column: Wichita State’s veterans prove to be difference-makers

Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet (23) breaks through the Kansas defense to score 2 points late in the Shockers 78-65 loss over the Jayhawks Sunday, March 22, 2015 at the CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.

? The song remains the same in the Kansas University locker room on the day it gets knocked out of the NCAA tournament. This year, that day came Sunday when a veteran, unflappable Wichita State squad defeated Kansas, 78-65, in the round of 32 at CenturyLink Center.

Here’s how it goes: Reporters, asking questions that need to be asked, stop by the lockers of former McDonald’s All-Americans and ask if they will return to Kansas for another year. Even sophomore Wayne Selden Jr., on a day he was outscored buy Tekele Cotton, 19-0, had one rebound, no assists and two turnovers and ran his career NCAA tournament shooting totals to 4 for 21 overall and 0 for 4 from three-point range. He was ranked No. 12 in the nation coming out of high school, so when the question is asked, nobody finds it strange. The new March Madness for elite college basketball programs not named Kentucky. True madness.

The last Kansas team that reached the Final Four, in 2012, was coach Bill Self’s lone roster since his days at Tulsa that didn’t have an eligible McDonald’s All-American on it. So what’s a coach to do? Stop recruiting McDonald’s All-Americans, just about all of whom hit campus with one foot out the door, one ear tuned to those looking to cash in on a teenager’s potential to earn millions playing basketball? That’s not the answer either. At Kansas, the goal always is to assemble a roster capable of winning the national championship. The 2008 national champs banked on four McDonald’s All-Americans (Cole Aldrich, Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins), plus Brandon Rush, who generated plenty of one-and-done talk as a freshman.


Box score

The right mix is tougher than ever to put together. In the wake of that 2012 title-game loss, KU has gone 4-3 in NCAA tournament games. 

“The reality of it is we lost to a team that was better than us today and certainly deserves to move on,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, ever-gracious in post-game interviews, be it in victory or defeat.

Wichita State wasn’t only better than Kansas on Sunday. It has been better for a three-year stretch. Over the same period, KU is 4-3 in the tourney, Wichita State is 7-2 and counting.

One-and-done prospects don’t consider Wichita State. Their handlers don’t think it’s cool enough to brag about their player going there and the competition they face in bigger conferences allows a better chance to showcase their talents. The players WSU lands come with an eagerness to prove they should have been recruited by the so-called power conferences. When a coach makes the right talent judgments and brings them along in the right way, they can play with the big boys and beat them.

I had to ask Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, one of the best college basketball coaches in America, as is Self, if he could recruit one-and-done talents to the Missouri Valley Conference school, would he do it, or does the blueprint available to him work just as well?

“It’s not something I have to worry about because I haven’t had any one-and-done guys really interested in our program,” Marshall said. “I’m not saying I would or wouldn’t. It’s not something that I’ve had the opportunity to explore.”

Marshall shared the post-game podium with Cotton, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel.

“But I do know that four years ago we recruited these three guys in one recruiting class, and two of them redshirted, that’s why they’re juniors,” Marshall said. “I remember them coming in that summer, and we were able to practice like for two hours a week and then take them on a trip (to Brazil, preceded by 10 practice days). … We were down in Rio, playing games, going to the beaches, got to know each other, had a really good bond, coach-to-player, player-to-player, and I knew then that we had something special. We really had a great group of young players, and now they’ve developed and achieved so much that it’s been beautiful to watch.”

Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were exciting to watch for a year at Kansas, but Wiggins showed his youth in the NCAA tourney and Embiid, cautious in advance of the NBA draft, never played in the tournament.

Marshall, as with Self in 2012, when he started four juniors and a senior, never has to worry about whether his players know what to do, never has to worry whether they can take a punch and keep plowing forward. Self’s team of young players, some improving, some not, kept the coach guessing.

Kansas sophomore point guard Frank Mason III came out on fire and led Kansas to a 17-12 lead with nine points. The Shockers’ body language didn’t change. The lead grew to 24-16. The Shockers’ confidence never wavered.

Wichita State ended the half on a 13-2 run and Fred VanVleet’s three-pointer with 54 seconds left gave the Shockers their first lead since 2-1. Kansas never led again, and with 15:25 left, Baker’s tip-in put the Shockers up by 11. Plenty of time left for Kansas, except that it didn’t feel that way. Freshman Devonté Graham, who projects as a four-year player, brought urgency with four of his five steals and 13 of his 17 points coming in the second half. He didn’t have enough company. The KU defense that looked so tough until late in the first half vanished. At the other end, Wichita State pressured Kansas out of running its offense. Cotton was as good, maybe better, at the defensive end as on offense in matching up against Selden.

Asked about Selden’s 0-for-5 shooting night, Self said, “We’ve done it all year long. We kind of, it was a make-shift plan. Things didn’t go as scripted, obviously, and we had some guys, couple of guys that played well, and we had a couple of guys not have their best game and certainly we’re the type of team that, you know, we shouldn’t be putting it on a reserve freshman to carry us, and that’s what we did today. But, you know, that happens sometimes. Wayne didn’t have his best game, but he also carried us last week, too, so that’s been the story of our team is that you just never know which guys, and we just didn’t have enough guys today.”

Obviously, Selden wasn’t KU’s lone scoreless McDonald’s All-American. Freshman center Cliff Alexander wasn’t eligible for the postseason as the NCAA investigated his family’s compliance to rules. Kelly Oubre Jr., out-hustled to a loose ball by Shockers freshman Zach Brown on a huge play, totaled nine points and five rebounds. Perry Ellis contributed 17 points and eight rebounds, but had trouble getting open.

It’s the offseason now, which means a player or players likely will depart before exhausting their eligibility, and others will arrive, some hoping for a short stay.  

More news and notes from Kansas vs. Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament