Top-seeded Wichita State headed to St. Louis — with Kansas company

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03/17/2014 10:49 AM

05/16/2014 12:33 PM

Some people reacted with anger and sympathy on behalf of Wichita State on Sunday as CBS revealed the Midwest Region bracket. The top-seeded and unbeaten Shockers appeared to receive a tough challenge from the selection committee, which placed some of college basketball’s biggest names between them and a return to the Final Four.

The Shockers reacted with excitement. They want to play the big names, be they Kentucky, Kansas State, Louisville or Duke. The biggest reaction during the selection show came when Kentucky popped up as a possible opponent.

“The best challenge out there is those big-name schools that you think you can’t beat,” Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said. “And I feel like we can beat them, if we continue to play hard and do what we do.”

Before the Shockers can think about big names, they must fulfill the duty of a No. 1 seed and dispatch a No. 16. No. 1 seeds are 116-0 against No. 16 seeds. But they witnessed No. 16 Southern trail No. 1 Gonzaga by one point with 2:28 remaining last season in Salt Lake City. Gonzaga won 64-58, a performance that hinted at its vulnerability. The Zags lost to the Shockers two days later.

The Shockers, 34-0, will play either Cal Poly, 13-19, or Texas Southern, 19-14, at 6:10 p.m. on Friday on CBS at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Those teams play Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. The Shockers, if they win, would face the Kansas State-Kentucky winner in the round of 32 on Sunday.

The Scottrade Center, site of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, will be a madhouse starting Thursday with the public practices. Kentucky and Kansas (in the South Region) have two of the largest fan bases in college basketball. Shockers fans started buying tickets for St. Louis at least a month ago. Kansas State adds a fourth team within driving distance.

The first test for Wichita State will be to ignore the circus and focus on playing, first against an opponent they won’t know until Wednesday night. A year ago, the Shockers slipped relatively unnoticed into Salt Lake City — unable to fill a chartered flight with fans — as a No. 9 seed.

This season, all eyes are on the nation’s lone unbeaten team. Before the Shockers can worry about Kentucky’s height or Kansas State’s Marcus Foster or a rematch with Louisville, it needs to win a game.

“Our bracket looks very stacked,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “Anytime you’re going to play in this tournament, you really can’t think too far down the road. There will be upsets. People are going to talk about ‘You’re going to play this team or this team.’ You just need to take care of the business that is right in front of you, and that’s preparing for Texas Southern or Cal Poly.”

The Shockers excelled this season at taking each opponent seriously.

“We’ve got business to take care of, and we’ve got to prepare properly,” Early said.

Grabbing one of four seeds atop a bracket adds another landmark to this historic season.

Wichita State is the Valley’s second No. 1 seed, joining Indiana State in 1979. It is Wichita State’s best seed in the tournament, topping a No. 5 in 2012. The Shockers are making a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the first time in school history Wichita State has gone to the Dance in three straight years.

“My reaction was, very thankful,” Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. “You get chill bumps watching your team’s name pop up on the bracket. This year, as a one seed, it feels very special, and we’ll hope to take advantage of it.”

They join a list of 45 schools to earn top seeds since the NCAA first ranked the field in 1979. North Carolina (14), Duke (12), Kentucky (11) and Kansas (10) lead the list. Since 2004, Wichita State, Gonzaga (2013), Memphis (2006, 2008) and Saint Joseph’s (2004) are the only schools outside the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences to earn a No. 1 seed.

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