In 2013, Wichita State arrived at the NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed and Pittsburgh acted insulted with the matchup.
Two years later, Indiana acts honored.
“There is no thought process, no conversation, no should-we-cover-this or that that has anything to do with anything other than how great a team they are,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “You keep pointing out staples of why their program is so good, be it toughness on defense, be it the rebounding. Those guys can play anywhere.”
Seventh-seeded Wichita State 28-4, plays 10th-seeded Indiana, 20-13, in a game that not long ago may have forced Crean to prod his players. Not in 2015, not after the Shockers’ 2013 Final Four and not after winning 35 straight games last season.
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National titles, name recognition and conference affiliation tilt toward Indiana. The edge today leans toward the Shockers in enough areas to make the Hoosiers respectful.
“We’ve only got two players that have been to the NCAA Tournament,” Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell said. “We’ve got to come out of the gate early and swing hard, not get too hyped up about the big stage.”
The Shockers, for the most part, are veterans of the big stage with four straight appearances. The players who will handle the ball 90 percent of the time — Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton — are hype-proof after the last two seasons. Ferrell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea sparingly played in the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
“(Wichita State) is a very, very confident group,” Crean said. “And for one day, we’ve got to have that same level of confidence. Hopefully, our league and nonconference schedule and things like that prepare us for that. But they’re one of the upper-echelon programs because they have one of the great teams every year.”
Crean kept coming back to toughness. He admires Wichita State’s rebounding prowess. He is worried about the Shockers’ many pressing defenses. The strength of their guards is a concern.
“Their rebounding is absolutely second to none,” Crean said. “They don’t take possessions off. It’s a special preparation in the way that VanVleet is going to offensive rebound. Your blockouts matter. It doesn’t matter 80 percent of the time or 70 percent of the time. It matters every time.”
This is not a vintage Shockers rebounding team. They led the Missouri Valley Conference with a margin of 5.2 rebounds, down from previous seasons by at least two rebounds. Wichita State is smaller than in previous seasons, without as much depth, and must win the rebounding battle with hustle.
“We’ve been a good rebounding team,” VanVleet said. “It’s just in the past years, we have been an excellent rebounding team. It’s definitely going to take that kind of effort on Friday, because they really go hard to the offensive glass.”
Wichita State relies on its guards to rebound, which may put the Hoosier guards — including freshmen Robert Johnson and James Blackmon Jr. — in the unfamiliar position of needing to check out more than usual.
“You can go back to some of the close games they’ve had and it comes down to that loose rebound, that 50-50 ball, that loose ball on the ground,” Crean said. “They play the game so thorough.”
The Hoosiers endure more ups and downs, in part because of their youth and in part because of the challenges of the Big Ten. They beat SMU 74-68. They defeated Butler 82-73 by making 8 of 17 three-pointers. They routed Maryland 89-70 by making 15 of 22 threes.
Indiana will pressure Wichita State to defend four shooters and hustle back on defense. It made a school-record 308 threes, leading the Big Ten by making 40.3 percent. While MVC teams are good at spreading the floor with multiple shooters, none of them do with the caliber of athletes on Indiana’s roster.
“They play really, really fast and efficient offensively,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Getting back and organizing your defense and guarding their up-tempo style is a challenge.”
March always is a challenge, one this experienced group of Shockers understands well after the past two seasons.