Call Wichita State shocking or surprising or an upstart for making its first NCAA Sweet Sixteen since 2006.
Just not “Cinderella.”
For this team, at this time, the label doesn’t quite stick.
“Maybe a lot of people will be surprised that we’re here -- but we’re not," Shockers guard Tekele Cotton said Saturday after his team upset top-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga to advance. “We’re confident that we can match up with any team from anywhere … that’s why I don’t feel like we are a Cinderella.”
Plus, the Shockers should be the favored team when they play 13th-seeded La Salle in Los Angeles on Thursday night. Part of that has to do with the bracket; even as a No. 9, they are the third-highest seed remaining (behind No. 2 Ohio State and No. 6 Arizona) in what has been a wild West Region. But part of that has to do with depth, stick-to-itiveness and the varying ways they can get under your skin.
WSU is known first and foremost for its defense. Forged from mentalities so competitive that freshman Fred Van Vleet once got mad at coach Gregg Marshall’s daughter for not performing better as his shuffleboard partner, the Shockers believe in bruising and contesting and rebounding on every possession.
In the round of 64, for example, they out-defensed defense-minded Pitt, holding the Panthers to 35.2 percent shooting -- including 5.9 percent from 3-point range.
Then against usually sharpshooting Gonzaga, the Shockers frustrated the Zags into a 35.6 percent night from the field -- while also showing another dimension themselves: the ability to score. And score a lot.
“When you walk in the door in October, the first thing that comes out of our coach’s mouth is defense and rebounding; that’s definitely something we strive for,” said redshirt freshman Ron Baker, who accounted for four of WSU’s 14 3-pointers Saturday. “Defense comes first, offense comes later. … But what people may not know is that we can shoot it, too.”
And people might not know it, because the makeup of this team is so relatively new.
Gone, at the beginning of the season, were five seniors from the squad that won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season in 2012, then lost in its first game of the NCAA tournament. But with replacements such as Oregon transfer point guard Malcolm Armstead, junior college transfer Cleanthony Early and experienced forward Carl Hall, WSU won its first nine games this season and picked up a Top-25 ranking.
Then came the setbacks: Hall broke his thumb and was out for a month; Baker was shelved for 21 games because of a stress fracture in his foot; starter Evan Wessel was lost for the season after breaking his pinkie. The Shockers had to persevere through a three-game losing streak in late January/early February, rally after back-to-back losses at the end of the regular season; and bounce back from a three-point defeat by Creighton in the MVC tournament final.
But in the long run, those tough breaks (and losses) might have helped the Shockers become tougher and more resilient, because they allowed more teammates to develop. And for the team to ultimately play 10 deep.
And now, perhaps, advance even deeper into the NCAA tournament.
"The stars are aligned for the Shockers right now," Marshall said this week during a conference call.
Not because they are a Cinderella. But because they are tough and focused and ready to prove it.
“All our guys believe they play with anyone, anywhere -- and we can," Cotton said. “We’re confident. There may be [people] out there who think of us as underdogs, but we don’t."