ATLANTA -- As the lowest remaining seed (No. 9) and the only team left from a mid-major conference (Missouri Valley), Wichita State, at least on paper, may have the most difficult route this weekend to a national championship.
But playing in their first Final Four since 1965, the Shockers don’t see themselves as underdogs. After all, few of them took an easy route to even get to WSU in the first place.
“You’ve got a kid from Nigeria, you’ve got a kid from Rockford, Illinois ... you’ve got guys who have transferred, walked on, had times when they didn’t know if they would play again,’’ said redshirt freshman Ron Baker.
“It’s remarkable how we’re all on the team, and we’ve got all our individual stories -- but it makes for a great big giant story, in itself.”
Indeed, top-seeded Louisville on Saturday will face a bruising, confident, defensive-minded team that Shockers freshman Fred VanVleet affectionately calls a “band of misfits.” And boy, do they fit well together.
Leading scorer Cleanthony Early is a transfer who played Division III his first two seasons because he wanted to stay close to his family after the drowning death of his older brother. Leading rebounder Carl Hall spent two years sidelined because of a heart condition -- and at one point, he was painting light bulbs on the night shift in a factory to pay tuition.
“I made about $12 an hour,’’ Hall said Friday. “... I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody. It was just a hot, nasty job.”
Even though WSU didn’t have a scholarship immediately available for him, point guard Malcolm Armstead transferred from Oregon last season and took a part-time job at a car dealership to help pay the bills. Sharpshooter Baker, from tiny Scott City, Kan., was a preferred walk-on last season -- and said his second choice would have been a Kansas community college if WSU hasn’t worked out.
And it doesn’t end there.
Senior Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College.
Transfer Kadeem Coleby is from the Bahamas.
Having so many players come from so many places and backgrounds makes Early, for one, believe this is a team of destiny.
Maybe so. But it’s also the result of coach Gregg Marshall and staff his finding the right mix at the right time. This team, after all, lost five seniors from last season’s regular season conference-winning squad.
And then it lost Hall for seven regular-season games because of a thumb injury. Baker for 21 games because of a hurt foot.
Yet here they are.
“We want winners,’’ Marshall said. “We want guys that really want to win, that want to commit to something bigger than themselves. We want guys that are tough and athletic so they can defend and rebound at a high level. And ultimately, [we want] some guys that can put it in the basket.
“I think we have a great blend of those guys, but the biggest thing is we have character guys.”
Guys who know the seedings and see the challenges ahead, but who Friday were loose and smiling and eager to play -- and who refuse to see themselves as underdogs.
“We’ve got a lot of guys on this team who have been through a lot, experienced a lot -- and that’s helped us all relate to each other, win together,’’ VanVleet said. “... Some people might see us as underdogs, but when you get to the Final Four, seedings are just a number.”
Where’s that?: Baker wasn’t exactly surprised Friday when couple of workers on the Georgia Dome concourse asked the location of Wichita State.
After all, some of his teammates didn’t exactly know where the school was when they were first recruited, either.
“I had to Google it, see how big the city was,’’ Hall said. “When I first heard the word ‘Wichita,’ I’m thinking a small country town, people walking around with cowboy boots on, things like that.”
Armstead’s thoughts went worlds beyond that.
“First thing came to mind was ‘Wizard of Oz,’ like Dorothy,’’ he said. “That was the only thing I knew about it.”
Baker, a Kansan, knew exactly how to answer the question, though.
“I told them it is in the middle of Kansas, kind of in the middle of nowhere,’’ he said, then broke into a smile. “Everybody knows where Kansas is.”
Taking a compliment: Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently described the Shockers’ defense as “Marquette on steroids.”
Marshall’s response: “We’re not on steroids, [but] other than that, I think it’s a definite compliment. Buzz Williams does a marvelous job. He’s one of the great coaches in our country. Rick Pitino, who I have the utmost respect for and admiration, for him to say that is certainly a compliment. I hope that it’s true ... if we’re ‘Marquette on steroids’ defensively tomorrow, that will gives us a great chance.”