WASHINGTON, D.C. – Most of the nation, even die-hard college basketball fans, don't know much about Wichita State basketball. The Shockers play under the radar (and away from national television) in the Missouri Valley Conference. They haven't had an NCAA tournament team since 1988, and even this year's 26-8, Sweet 16 team does not feature a single player with a scoring average better than 13 points per game.
In other words, who are these guys and how did they get here?
We aimed to find out Thursday as the Shockers, George Mason Patriots, UConn Huskies and Washington Huskies went through the paces during media day at the newly dubbed Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (where media members complained about spotty cell phone coverage, incidentally).
Turns out the Wichita State roster is made up of players from the Midwest and Southwest – team-oriented guys who actually mean it when they say things like, "We just do whatever our coach asks," which is exactly what senior center Paul Miller said when asked how his team made it this far.
For the detail oriented, Wichita State actually got here because they won the regular season in a very tough MVC to earn an at-large bid and a 7-seed, then beat Seton Hall, 86-66, in the first round before holding off Tennessee, 80-73 in the second.
Miller was the Player of the Year in the MVC. He's a 6-foot-10, 250-pound center who averages 13 points and 6.5 rebounds, tops among three other players who also average double figures. Second in scoring is sophomore guard Sean Ogirri (12 points per game), followed by junior forward Kyle Wilson (11) and sophomore swingman P.J. Couisnard (10.4).
"We share the ball on offense; and on defense we try to limit the other team to one shot," said Miller, a native of Jefferson City, Mo.
Sounds simple enough.
What sets Miller apart, according to his coach, is that the Shockers offense "goes through him," and he is a very intelligent basketball player.
"He's very skilled, has great hands, and can do a turnaround jumper from six feet to 18 feet on the block," said coach Mark Turgeon. "He's got a great turn-and-face game also. And with that said, he's a good passer and demands double teams."
BACK ON THE BASKETBALL MAP
This year's Wichita State team captured the attention and imagination of fans in Kansas' largest city, who sold out the team's 10,500-seat arena 14 out of 16 home dates. After the win over Tennessee, hundreds of fans greeted the team at the airport and Ogirri said all week he's been stopped for autographs and pictures.
"We're a very big deal back home right now," Ogirri said amid a gaggle of cameras and microphones in the locker room Thursday in D.C. "People are so happy. They are buying shirts, hats, spray-painting cars, it's crazy."
Even though this is the first NCAA tournament appearance for Wichita State in nearly 20 years, the program has a proud basketball heritage, highlighted by a run to the Final Four in 1965. Wichita State is also known for having produced one of the most exciting college basketball players ever in Xavier McDaniel. The "X Man" owns many Wichita State records, and averaged 27 points and 15 rebounds as a senior in 1984-85 before a successful NBA career.
Ogirri said McDaniel made an appearance in the Shockers' locker room prior to the Tennessee game and is expected in D.C. this weekend.
"He just said good luck' and that he hopes to see us in the Final Four," Ogirri said.
LEVERAGING THE RUN
Turgeon said the attention and respect that his team and the MVC have generated this year may help on the recruiting trail going forward, but that success must be sustained over the long term for a true, program-changing impact.
"I was an assistant at the University of Oregon when one of my best friends, Mark Few, was an assistant at Gonzaga and they went to the Elite Eight (in 1999)," Turgeon said. "And it didn't change their recruiting. But then they went to two Sweet 16s and they were media darlings."
Point being, Turgeon said, "I think it takes more than one year for that to happen," with "that" being increased interest from top recruits. "We are not going to go down to Texas and get a kid because we went to the Sweet 16 one time."
CALLING THE ACTION FOR CBS
As players went through shoot-arounds and press conferences, the CBS announcing team of play-by-play man Verne Lundquist, analyst Bill Raftery and sideline reporter Mike Gminski sat and mingled courtside to chat with players and coaches, and take a few notes for the broadcast.
Lundquist, who works with CBS lead analyst Billy Packer during the regular season, has teamed with Raftery for the past eight NCAA tournaments. After practices ended, the pair said they talk regularly during the year and often catch up for dinner at the Masters and other events when their schedules allow.
To get ready for NCAA tournament games, Raftery says he reviews as many as eight games of each team and spends hours watching them, though he admitted he will hit the fast-forward button through some sequences.
"You know, once you see what kind of defense they are playing," he said.
Lundquist said that as soon as he finds out the teams, he'll start combing the Internet to read a slew of articles.
"The key is getting yourself organized," he said, adding that this weekend's games are much easier to call than the first and second rounds, when there are more teams to study.
Raftery said he and Lundquist both have personal relationships with each of the four coaches. Lundquist, for example, covered Kansas basketball when Turgeon was a Jayhawk in the mid 1980s; and Raftery was a first-year coach at Seton Hall when George Mason coach Jim Larranaga played for Providence.
"He beat our butts," Raftery recalled.
In terms of expectations for the games, both said the UConn-Washington game is the obvious heavyweight matchup, but they are intrigued and excited for the undercard.
"The Missouri Valley Conference has really captured America's attention and now the Colonial has a legitimate beef to get more teams in every year," Lundquist said. "What George Mason has done in beating Michigan State and North Carolina is incredible."
"It's mind boggling," Raftery added.
GMINSKI CHANGES POSITION
For his part, Gminski will be calling his first games as a sideline reporter; the former Duke and NBA star typically works as an analyst, but CBS has asked him to be "another pair of basketball eyes," around the court.
Gminski also has a connection to Larranaga. When Larranaga was an assistant at Davidson College, he recruited Gminski to play there, and the two have kept in touch occasionally over the years.
"The irony of the whole thing is that you have a team like George Mason, a complete underdog in their first two games, and now they find themselves in the Sweet 16 in a home game against a team they've already beaten," he said. "You wonder if that changes their mindset."
The G Man is picking UConn to emerge from D.C. and go to the Final Four.
"To me, UConn is the best team in the country, and the only team that can stop UConn is UConn," he said.
- There was a comical moment during the UW press conference when freshman point guard Justin Dentmon was asked how he plans to slow down UConn point guard Marcus Williams.
"I really can't say right now," Dentmon said, and then quietly thought about it, unsure of what to say next. Sitting next to him, senior superstar Brandon Roy leaned in and could be heard whispering, "tell them you are going to slow him down in transition."
"I am going to slow him down in transition," Dentmon said.
- UConn guard Denham Brown on the challenge of guarding Brandon Roy – "You know, I go up against guys like that every day, Rudy (Gay) and Rashad (Anderson) in practice. So I think we are really well prepared."
- Perhaps no coach or player is enjoying himself as much as George Mason's Larranaga. On being a Cinderella team, Larranaga said, "I told our team that if we're going to be Cinderella, you have to remember that Cinderella was a beautiful young lady who eventually turned into a princess. I don't think our guys want to be referred to as princesses."
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in The Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the Washington, D.C. regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.