WSU fans are reeling from the sudden and dramatic end to one of the greatest basketball seasons in NCAA basketball history. I am personally still not quite over the loss. I lay in bed and think things like, If the last shot were like a half inch to the left we would be playing Louisville this weekend.
In a large nutshell, here is what happened. Wichita State went to the Final Four last year. That's huge. We thought we had reached the limit of what our basketball program could accomplish. And I think we were somewhat satisfied with that. Then our follow-up season began... and we won the first game! Then we won the second, and the third...
Wow.. Great start!
Most of us probably didn't watch or listen to those first few games, because we were busy, or we had other things we wanted to do. But when we got to game 7, 8, 9, 10... and we were still winning every game.. It started to become more of a priority for us. Game 15, 16.. It just kept going. And it wasn't a fluke. These guys were good! We beat some very good teams. Tennessee. St. Louis...
It eventually became can't miss, appointment TV or radio. Other things were set aside while we watched our Shockers move into conference play. Then the buzz started.. Can these guys really have an undefeated season? And they did. In fact, they became the first team in NCAA history to win 31 games in a regular season!
But one thing had forever eluded us, winning the MVC tournament in St. Louis. Arch Madness. Can these guys have an undefeated season and then accomplish the as-yet unattainable, winning the MVC Tourney? And they did it. Almost with ease.
Then we were a #1 seed for the NCAA tournament. Ranked #2 in the country, behind Florida.
By this time we were sure these guys were Superman. They were smaller than most of their opponents. Our superstar Point Guard Fred Van Vleet is only 5'11''. That's almost a midget in the Basketball world. But Wichita St. took 5 guys onto the floor each night and almost become one huge unstoppable monster that beat you by playing the game smarter than your 7 footers.
The national buzz before the tournament was incredible. But then selection Sunday came and the committee dropped a bomb on us. #1 seed, yes. But guess what, we were seeded in a region where the committee decided to put 3 of last year's Final Four teams, plus underseed a couple of basketball powerhouses who had "One and done" NBA #1 round draft picks filling up their starter and bench rosters.
This meant in order to get to a Final Four, and/or a National Championship we were going to have to play on a level that great teams like Duke, Louisville and Kentucky would struggle with even in their best years. In fact, guess what, It WAS Kentucky, Louisville, and Kentucky! The standards for Basketball greatness in America. But we could do it.
Keep in mind the critics were having a heyday with WSU's wild season. They have yet to play anybody good. They aren't legit. They are good for a "Mid-Major" school, but they can't hang with the big boys.
But the critics were fewer than the fans. Prior to the Tourney, WSU made the esteemed cover of Sports Illustrated twice. All eyes were on WSU. The stage was set for us to at least have a repeat Final Four appearance, if not with the National Championship all while having a perfect season and going 40-0. Unprecedented. History. But we knew we could do it!
Our first opponent was California Polytechnic State University. Not exactly a basketball powerhouse.. but hey, they had earned their place. And despite a valiant effort, WSU steamrolled over them like it was nothing.
Moving right along! We can do this!
Next we draw Kentucky. Kentucky was the pre-season, unanimous #1 team to beat. They had 5 freshman that were major national recruits. They were all going to be #1 round draft picks next year. All "One-and-done". Plus they had up to 3 more on their bench that were NBA bound. They had some rough patches this year as 5 freshman who were all future professional ballers, but some immaturity kept them from living up to their hype. But in the last 6 or 7 games they had started coming together and were playing absolutely amazing basketball. They had become that pre-season #1 that people had expected, just in time to meet us. But we could do this!
All eyes are on CBS as the tip-off happened on Sunday afternoon at 1:45...
We get the opening tip-off! But immediately the war started.
Up and down the court, for 40 minutes we traded basket for basket with this Goliath. We even went up by 9 shortly before the half, and we were up by 6 at halftime. We got this!
The second half we started off with a beautiful 3 pointer by Cleanthony Early to match our largest lead. Holy Cow! We are going to slay the dragon! We got this!!
But basketball is a game of runs, and Kentucky brought it back and took the lead by 1.
What followed was the some of greatest 16 or 17 minutes of basketball a lot of seasoned veteran players, commentators, pundits, and coaches claim they have ever seen in College Tournament Basketball history. Basket for basket we went toe to toe with this team. In fact you could tell that both teams were playing the greatest games of their seasons just to keep up with each other. They hit 3's, we hit a 3 in response. They have a dunk or alley oop, we followed it right up. Different styles of play coming together to make it work for each team.
Time winding down. We got this!
Up. Down. Never more than 4 point difference between the two exhausted teams.
Now we were down by 2 points with 9 seconds left and the ball! It's scary.. But We can do this!
Cross the half court.. time out with 3 seconds on the clock. We can do this!!
This seemed like an eternity. Coach Gregg Marshall carefully selected one last play of the game. It was going to have to be a 3 pointer. No time to get it inside. So it was make or break. Make it, and we win this, and possibly go on to our National Championship. Along with basketball glory, fame, and prestige. I wonder how many movie companies were watching, salivating. This would have been a sports movie that could hang with the greats. The little team that did the impossible. The "Mid-Major" that took down the elites in spectacular fashion, against all odds, and with critics calling them out from the start. We are going to do this, for real!
The ref hands us the ball. He blows the whistle and every man moves in deliberate motion with Kentucky unsure of who would receive the entry pass and take that final shot. This, again, seemed like an eternity. But one man, one single man broke free from his defender. It was our fearless leader. The 5'11'' point guard Fred Van Vleet. He grabbed the ball and with precision he juked his defender and took a step back.
My guess is that time stood still for him in that last second. Probably everything around him moved in slow motion. His vision was clear. He planted his feet square to the basket. He had the fundamentals down. He had a clean, clear shot. The ball left his hand with amazing form. This was it! This is where time stood still for those of us watching at home. Almost as if that ball hung in the air for an eternity. For. The. Win!!!
The ball hit the right side of the rim. It bounced hard to the right. As it flew off, away from the net, we stood at home with our hands over our mouth as the red light on the backboard lit up to signal the end of the game. The end of our tournament. The end of our perfection. The end of our season. That was it. It's all over. Just like that. An inch separated us from 30 for 30 ESPN films. Covers of Wheatie's boxes. Faces on every magazine. Visits to the White House. Us telling our children's children where we were when we watched our unlikely team tear down the nets in Dallas on April 6th, 2014. It was all over now. The air deflated in the stadium I'm sure. I know it did in our living room.