Wichita State will finally get the game its coach and fans have been craving since the Shockers ascended to national relevance a few years ago.
The seventh-seeded Shockers secured a long-awaited matchup with Kansas by edging 10th-seeded Indiana 81-76 on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
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"When people saw the bracket they were already talking about this day on Sunday," Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. "It's a big thing for the state of Kansas; a lot of excitement, a lot of houses are going to be divided. It's just going to be exciting. As a player, being from Kansas, just really, really fortunate to be in this game."
What makes the matchup between in-state powers perhaps the most compelling game of the round of 32 is the debate between the two coaches over whether to schedule one another for the first time since 1993.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has tried to publicly goad Kansas into agreeing to a home-and-home series for the past couple years to no avail. Kansas coach Bill Self feels his program has nothing to gain by deviating from his longstanding policy of not scheduling the Shockers.
Even though Wichita State reached the 2013 Final Four, completed an unbeaten regular season last year and eclipsed the 30-win mark for a third straight season this year, Self thinks the Jayhawks only jeopardize their status as top dog in the state and region by scheduling the Shockers. A series between the two would draw massive interest in-state and nationally, but Self notes Kansas has the ability to accomplish the same thing by scheduling marquee games against name-brand out-of-state programs.
"This isn’t knocking Wichita State,” Self told the Kansas City Star in December 2013. "But if it was best for our program, I would reach out to them about scheduling them. But it’s not. I’ve heard a lot of talk about them wanting to play us so bad; Gregg Marshall’s never contacted me about playing."
Such chatter should only add to the stakes and the motivation on both sides.
At stake for Wichita State is the chance to get to a Sweet 16 and send a message to the in-state juggernaut that won't deign to play the Shockers. At stake for Kansas is also a spot in the Sweet 16 and the chance to silence an in-state foe that has been talking an awful lot about wanting a shot at the Jayhawks despite only being on an elite level for just three years now.
To set up that matchup, both Wichita State and Kansas had to first take care of their opening-round opponents on Friday.
Kansas sank 9 of 13 threes and throttled 15th-seeded New Mexico State 75-56. Wichita State overcame torrid outside shooting from Indiana behind 27 points from point guard Fred VanVleet and 15 from an unusually cold-shooting Baker.
Wichita State played in the glamour game of the NCAA tournament's opening weekend last year when the undefeated Shockers lost a heartbreaker to preseason No. 1 Kentucky in the round of 32.
Big as that game was, Shockers-Jayhawks for a spot in the Sweet 16 may be even bigger.
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