As Wichita State’s Ron Baker took the court against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at CenturyLink Center, he was engulfed in what might be termed an out-of-body experience.
For much of his life, the western Kansas native had envisioned being in the other uniform on the other bench.
Now the moment was here, only inside-out, and all of that faded to the background with the white noise of thousands of fans from each team in the arena.
But it wasn’t because Baker and his Shocker teammates were overwhelmed, or the moment was too big for them.
Never miss a local story.
It was because, in sharp contrast to this Kansas team, they know who they are and were zoomed in on the moment. And they long since had learned that it’s about the game, not the name.
So in their first meeting since 1993, Wichita State smashed Kansas 78-65, a misleadingly close final score, to advance to the Sweet 16 against Notre Dame on Thursday in Cleveland.
“I’m not sure we’ll need a plane to fly home,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said afterward, and Baker said he needed to both slap himself across the face and pinch himself to be sure this was true.
But there was nothing at all hazy about the result against a disjointed and sluggish Kansas team.
Despite winning an 11th straight Big 12 title, KU groped for consistency all season and as recently as last weekend left coach Bill Self struggling to say what defined this team beyond “find a way.”
That suggests a certain resolve and grit, though, stuff that KU never demonstrated on Sunday.
The Jayhawks got behind early in the second half, their demeanors sagged … and Wichita State pounced.
When Kansas went to a zone defense midway through the half, point guard Fred VanVleet believed the Shockers had put a stranglehold on it.
“They do that as a last resort …,” he said. “Once we saw that, we knew that we kind of had control of them.”
One play in particular stood out to VanVleet, and it also was a tidy metaphor for this all-Kansas showdown.
“When Zach Brown chased the ball down from (Kelly Oubre) — who said he was sleeping during our game (Friday),” the Wichita State guard said. “He probably should have woke up on that play. Zach Brown got the dunk (to make it 56-45 with less than 10 minutes left) and got the crowd going crazy. …
“But (Oubre) can sleep all he wants now.”
This was a fine distinction from the fierce, voracious Shockers team that went to the Final Four two years ago, earned a No. 1 seed last season and yet somehow remains perceived as a cuddly afterthought by some.
Never mind that they’ve faced up to a parade of college basketball’s most storied names in postseason play the last three years, including Indiana on Friday and now KU.
Brand names, they’ll tell you, are irrelevant.
“If (it’s about names), why are we going to play?” said VanVleet, the point guard who’s been crucial for the Shockers and had 17 points Sunday. “Let’s put Duke and Kentucky in the tournament from the jump, and let’s not even do the tournament.”
But it goes deeper than that to him, and it’s no accident that he’s representative of the type of player Marshall has recruited.
“I’ve been that way since birth, really,” VanVleet said. “Because I’ve never been on the other side … We don’t have McDonald’s All-Americans; we don’t have guys who’ve been in the spotlight and been given that pedestal …
“We all have scrapped and fought our whole lives. It’s just who we are as people.”
So left in their wake now is Kansas, which for a second straight year was seeded second in its region and failed to make it past the first weekend.
“These things can happen in the NCAA Tournament, but I understand that it makes for an offseason that will be obviously hard to put aside,” Self said. “Because it’s obviously going to weigh on us, and it’s going to weigh on others.”
There are plenty of reasons for this at Kansas, but one is the flux of a roster in the era where special players like Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are one-and-done, leaving school early for the NBA.
Meanwhile, schools like Wichita State are able to harness continuity, which resonates with anyone who watches the Shockers play together.
“It’s a huge advantage,” Marshall said. “These guys know me, I know them. We kind of think alike at times.”
But such is the blessing and burden of being of KU’s stature — which also helps accounts for why this game was so high-profile.
As Wichita State has risen back to prominence over the last few years, Marshall has let it be known that he’d like to play the Jayhawks.
Kansas has had no interest, at least in part on the theory that its program is on such a tier that it has nothing to gain by indulging the Shockers.
That looks different after Sunday, of course, though there’s no reason to expect that to change now.
Marshall playfully offered an alternative.
“I’d love to play them in the (NCAA) Tournament every year,” he said.
In Sunday’s version, the crowd of 17,563 seemed about equally partisan, with some families or couples around the arena clad in gear for each school and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in attendance.
During the game, he wore a T-shirt featuring the logos of both schools — but nonetheless got nothing but boos when he appeared on the screen at mid-court.
Afterward, he was in the Shockers’ locker room wearing a gold shirt someone gave him as he came in, bearing the words: “KINGS OF KANSAS.”
As he chatted there, Brownback advocated something he was loosely characterizing as a “Cradle of Basketball” preseason tournament that would alternately involve KU and K-State playing Wichita State.
More to the point, he said he’d like to see KU and Wichita State “clash more regularly” and suggested “there could be something birthed here of a great basketball rivalry.”
Which would be great.
But Wichita State didn’t need to beat Kansas to validate itself.
Just to reinforce a point.
“We don’t play those guys; we don’t really know those guys. If we see them out, we’re not going to be mad at them,” VanVleet said. “There’s not much blood spilt there. you know?
“And for us as players, it’s just they were in our way of getting to the Sweet 16.”