Through an exercise with Wichita State’s chaplain and “character coach,” Steve Dickie, guard Fred VanVleet’s one-word theme for the season was synthesized into “perspective.”
And he offered up a dose after the Shockers’ never-a-doubt drubbing of Missouri State on Saturday at Koch Arena. With the 68-45 victory, Wichita State became the first team to finish the regular season unblemished in a decade.
“And no team has ever finished the regular season with a 31-0 record. Ever,” Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin said as he presented the league trophy. “That’s why the Shockers are the story of the year in college basketball.”
But VanVleet had a keen understanding of the fickle and potentially fleeting nature of that story.
What VanVleet called “the bad part about this world we live in” meant that this singular moment will soon be relegated to what have you done for us lately?
“The way we’ll play in the (NCAA) Tournament is how we’ll be judged,” he said after the postgame news conference. “If we play well, then they’ll say, ‘31 was legit.’ And if we don’t play well, they’ll say, ‘31 was a fluke.’ ”
That’s the beauty and the beast of NCAA play, which has become so all-consuming as to be the sole signature of a season now.
The regular season is rendered secondary, if not moot, and that’s understandable and unfair all at once.
What culminated here Saturday was special in its own right, regardless of what it all may or may not say about the Shockers’ chances of a second straight Final Four or becoming the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win the title without so much as a smudge.
And no matter how lean the Valley seemed to be this season.
“You can’t really measure what this means to us,” said Elgin, noting his belief that young talent around the league will have the conference on the rise again in the next few years.
Absorb what the Shockers did:
Game-in and game-out. Back from 19 points down at Missouri State. Under the pressure of being the last team standing. Always getting the opponent’s best. Fighting complacency. Dealing with the ridicule of a nonconference schedule that the Shockers were shackled to because who wants to play them?
Through all of that, not to mention a couple of clunkers any team is due, they came out unscathed 18 times in conference play and 31 overall.
Which is why understated sophomore Ron Baker was tugging at his No. 31 jersey when the final buzzer went off.
“I didn’t put that together myself,” he said, laughing.
Later, Baker explained that he was given that jersey at random after telling the coaching staff it didn’t matter what he wore.
“ ‘I don’t care what number I am; I’m happy to be a Shocker,’ ” he remembered saying.
Without really meaning to, Baker said a lot about the essence of this team and what distinguishes it.
Watch the ball movement, the hustle and technical soundness. Check out the body language and even the frequent smiles during games.
Sure, it’s easier to be happy when you’re winning. But this is a group whose enthusiasm and selflessness are a big part of why it is.
It’s a tribute to the game, really, the way the Shockers play.
“They embrace whatever is in front of them,” coach Gregg Marshall said. “They embrace the obstacle, the challenge, the grind. They embrace the work ethic. And that’s how you achieve something like this: You grind every day, and you fall in love with the process.
“They’re really an easy group to coach, they’re a special group of young men. And they just happen to be very team-oriented and talented.”
A perfect record, of course, doesn’t at all suggest it’s a perfect team.
“You don’t have to play perfect basketball to win a game. And if we ever play the perfect game, I’m going to retire,” Marshall said. “But we always strive for perfection, and if you strive for perception oftentimes you can achieve excellence.”
That starts with a relentless sense of being able to improve at all times, which is why VanVleet smiled and said he’s “sure everything won’t be all sweet” this week in practice as the Shockers get ready for the Missouri Valley Tournament.
Marshall sets that tone, in more ways than one.
He’s not afraid to say he’s still learning as a coach.
On Saturday, that included such adjustments as conducting Senior Day activities for Cleanthony Early, Kadeem Coleby, Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins after the game instead of before.
Last season, he recalled a player still crying as the last home game started, and the Shockers went on to lose 59-56 to Evansville.
“We kind of played like we needed a good cry,” Marshall said.
A year ago, the Shockers entered the conference tournament with two straight losses. Then they fell to Creighton in the final and went into NCAA play with a third loss in five games and a nondescript No. 9 seed before improbably barging into the Final Four.
This season, of course, they’ll be a team very much in the public eye and perhaps a No. 1 seed. Even at 31-0, it may take winning the conference tournament to secure a No. 1.
The fact that the Shockers haven’t won the Missouri Valley tourney since 1987 may be useful to Marshall, who recalled coming across that oddity when he was kicked out of a league game his first season in Wichita.
“I had a lot of time back in the locker room, and I was trying to figure out something to do kill the time so that I wouldn’t break anything,” he said. “And I went through the media guide.”
The next Wichita State media guide, of course, will update this season’s adventure in St. Louis. And beyond.
Marshall thinks there are about “two handfuls” of teams capable of winning the national title and that the Shockers are in that conversation.
But just like their last regular season and postseason reflected college basketball being “two separate seasons,” VanVleet said, these two won’t necessarily be related.
Still, on Saturday, the Shockers finished off what Marshall called “an incredibly special and long ride.”
Perspective should mean it can stand for itself. But perspective also says it just won’t be able to.