The Shock Of The New

The NCAA Tournament's appeal overlaps with the appeal of the underdog. Wichita State is on the verge of making that dream a lot less quaint, and a lot more real.
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An exact number of completed NCAA brackets is impossible to quantify, although over the course of their existence most will come to look alike. By tournament’s end, every 8x11 piece of computer paper is worn along the fold, scribbled upon; team names are scratched out or circled. The bracket in our hand, for which in many cases we happily paid, doesn’t feel much like the crisp and purposeful thing it once was, when it was handed to us—furtively, perhaps—by a co-worker or friend. This bracket can be an important thing, for all its broader insignificance: it's a token workplace camaraderie, a respite from the toil of an afternoon that might better have been spent watching basketball, an existential reminder of how little we really know about all this, or anything else.

There are multiple strategies, none of which work. I know a guy who picks Duke to win every year and people who choose winners based on which place would be more desirable to vacation. There are over-thinking bettors and people who simply chose every higher seed; there are people who bet with their head and there are people who bet with their heart, and both of them get to be wrong most of the time.

In the end, our brackets reside in the trash, and belong there. The only difference is which of the three weekends of the tournament they move in.

***

A couple years after college, my friends and I decided to dole out a mid-major conference to each other. The plan was for each of us to watch that conference intently, and so determine who were the best players and the best teams. We wanted to know how to bet, mostly. There was money to be made not necessarily in the NCAA Tournament, but in the conference tournaments, where oddsmakers were less likely to take bets—and, thus, less likely to take much stock in creating lines—on teams like the Chattanooga Mocs or the ever-dangerous Stetson Hatters.

It was simple and not very time consuming and we got to watch basketball. We followed each other’s betting advice and often won. We took the advice to bet on Davidson and their baby-faced shooting guard Stephan Curry. One of us won our pool in part by advancing them to the Elite Eight. We took the advice to bet on Butler, two years in a row, and you remember how that worked out.

There was, oddly, some joy in watching an admittedly inferior brand of basketball on GameCast or, if lucky, local feeds. Here were a dozen and a half guys in different colored jerseys in small gyms skinning their knees in pursuit of loose balls, playing in front of fans who may well have walked over, and pre-gaming heartily before heading in.

But, until Butler came within inches of winning a national title in 2010, our mid-major conference expertise understood there was a limit to their success. A third round upset of a No. 4 seed is not the same as beating a major conference juggernaut under the hot lights of a regional final. After that, we had no choice but to understand it differently.

***

During the fourth weekend of March last year, the 15th-seeded Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast University soared through the second and third rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, upsetting both Georgetown University and San Diego State University in startlingly convincing fashion. They did so in a wildly entertaining fashion, earning their "Dunk City" nickname over and over again.

An all-too-willing national audience familiarized themselves with the team, including coach Andy Enfield, whose appeal was no doubt bolstered by his beautiful wife, Amanda. A great deal of thought, and a greater deal of speculation, goes into the question of which team will be a given year’s Florida Gulf Coast. It promotes a polar response: celebrating wildly or tossing a bracket into the trash with each Lehigh over Duke or Bucknell over Kansas. The I Told You So glow of somehow getting this right is one of the stranger and more distinctive fan emotions available.

Since 2001, there has been only one NCAA Tournament—2007—in which a team seeded 12th or higher hasn’t won a game (or two) during the opening weekend. This is the central allure of the college basketball, this fantasy that anyone, on a given day, can beat anyone else. It is, mostly, just a fantasy—true enough in the opening rounds, but increasingly less so as the element of surprise erodes and distractions mount and the cream of the athletic crop does its inexorable rise.

For years, it’s been a quaint notion that a little school in the middle of nowhere, with a team comprised of ace defenders and deadeye shooters—or, in the case of the 2008 Davidson Wildcats, the help of one improbable otherworldly talent—can win a national title. The closest the basketball world has been to shocking its constituents so far was 2010 and Gordon Hayward’s heave at the horn versus Duke. If this is ever going to change, this might as well be the year, and Wichita State—last year's out-of-nowhere team, this year's undefeated one seed and Schrodinger's juggernaut—might as well be the team to change it.

***

At the 13:06 mark in the second half of the Missouri Valley Conference title game between the unbeaten Wichita State Shockers and the Indiana State Sycamores, ISU senior guard Dawon Cummings scored his fifth point of the game on a free throw; it brought his team within four points of the #2 team in the country. The game hadn’t been that close since very early in the first half.

What happened next is an embodiment of championship basketball: On the next possession, MVC Player of the Year Fred VanVleet sunk a three-pointer. The ensuing Sycamore possession ended with a Shockers steal by scrappy sophomore Ron Baker, who found Tekele Cotton for another trey. Back to ten points, just like that. Indiana State stuck around for another couple of minutes, but were ultimately undone by a barrage of Wichita State counterpunches, offensive rebounds and made free throws. The Shockers won by 14.

Great teams do this sort of thing, and Wichita State has done nothing but do this all season long. They did it last March, too, in a Final Four run that seems less and less implausible in retrospect. This type of poise is hard to quantify and cannot be qualified; it is, in effect, the ability to take every team's best shot and remain steadfast. There's a comprehensive, coherent aspect to this—a sort of shared faith that if everyone, from trainers to coaches to players, does what they're supposed to do, things will work out. Wichita State has faced the best of every team they’ve played this year, and that collective belief has never appeared to waver. They haven't lost, though, so of course it would seem that way.

Indiana State is a talented and well-coached team, but they and the rest of the MVC do not possess the size or skill of the players whose jerseys are embroidered with the letters of much more respected colleges and universities. Most of the teams that Wichita State has beaten this year are more like ISU than not, but still: there is something to be said for undefeated. This Shockers team does not seem to know how to lose, and the concept remains an abstraction. Some team might remind them of how it works, and how it feels. But it's telling how difficult it is to imagine it. It's been over a year since anyone saw it happen.

***

Since 2006, each Final Four has had at least one returning participant from the previous year. Four times, that returning team has won the championship. Last year’s Final Four was Louisville, Syracuse, Michigan, Wichita State. All of these teams are ranked within the Top 15 teams in the country, although it would be an unprecedented occurrence if all four advanced to the final weekend two years in a row.

Syracuse, Michigan, and Louisville all have impediments to their continuity. The Orange struggled down the stretch and are reliant on two freshmen players for much of their success; Michigan lost their best player to the NBA Draft and then lost their best frontcourt player to a season-ending injury; Louisville looks like a safe bet, but they are down two starters from last year’s team and only barely escaped their opening match-up with a tenacious but mostly undermanned Manhattan Jaspers team. In the Wichita State locker room, eight of their nine instrumental cogs have been in the system for at least three years. VanVleet, the one who wasn't, was recently named MVC Conference Player of the Year.

The gap between the talent level in major conferences and mid-major conferences will remain wide as long as college basketball's central contradictions and power structure stick around. It’s an easy sell to bring a top 50 high school prospect to a school like Duke, both because of the elegant Gothic-style campus and nice weather and because Duke sends players to the NBA each year. Mike Krzyzewski is a great coach and a great brand in his own right, but his job is not that hard in this regard: lead the recruit into Cameron Indoor Arena and walk him onto the floor. Let him watch, from the coach's box, as the Blue Devils pound on a capable, but, ultimately overmatched out-of-conference foe in front of a screaming crowd. Put Coach K’s office at the end of a large corridor, the hallway walls decorated with pictures of national championship teams and a trophy case extending its considerable length. It will not be a long walk to the office. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, even after last year's Final Four run, cannot really do any of this.

But the chasm between teams like Duke and teams like Wichita State, at least on the court, is narrowing, and not just in an any-given-day-in-March sense. This is a product of great coaching, team chemistry and continuity, sure. It is also a reflection of how college basketball has changed—how its increasingly foregrounded pre-professional nature brings power teams back towards the pack, and gives edges to strivers like Wichita State in terms of coherence and consistency. Athletics, in their Hobbesian way, are a classroom. Coach K and his like may find a way to adjust to this new reality, but they can't change it.

In high school and in the professional game, the team with the best player usually wins. This is especially true in a seven-game format or when the player in question is an all-time great.This is, as we’ve seen, not the case in college basketball. With the exception of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis in 2012, the last time a Naismith Player of the Year was a member of the national champion was Duke’s Shane Battier—a uniquely understated POY, as POYs go—in 2001. Before that, it was Christian Laettner. Both played for Duke, but in a different college basketball universe than the one that obtains today. By and large, then as now, the players who were the best players on the court every time they played—Kevin Durant, Evan Turner, Marcus Camby—couldn’t lead their teams to a title solely by the virtue of their brilliance. It doesn't work that way.

***

Someone, somewhere—maybe many people, maybe you, certainly many more than guessed as much last year—will have the Wichita State Shockers winning the national title this year. Who can a school with an enrollment of just under 15,000 and a location in the middle of Kansas’s biggest city send a nod of acknowledgment? A nod to Larry Bird’s Indiana State, probably; a glance over at George Mason University, a wink to Curry and Davidson, and a tacit understanding and appreciation toward Butler University, just 713 miles east on I-70. But mostly this is them, and this is now.

This is new, and special, and the players, like the fans, seem to get it. They realize this tenuous royalty is fleeting. Like many great experiences, it will be hard to understand and fully appreciate until its end. We can recognize ourselves in these kids: college kids simultaneously acknowledging the limitlessness of their potential, the fragility of their time, and the conclusion of most of their athletic careers. We can see a reflection of the various realities and contradictions in the business of basketball. Our brackets will probably wind up in the garbage again, because that is still how it goes, mostly.

VanVleet, after the win over Indiana State, said the debate about whether the Shockers belong in the elite of college hoops is for “barber shop talk and coffee table arguments.” The beauty of the college basketball tournament is that this will cease to be abstract when Wichita State tips off on Friday. The questions raised by the Shockers' rise will have their answers. If that's the only thing we really know for sure about this tournament, it's something.


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