Roughly 145 years ago, Wichita, then a dusty cowtown along the Chisholm Trail, was “Westworld” in real life.
Across the Arkansas River from the original settlement, a pre-incorporated area called Delano became a breeding ground for vagrants. On a daily basis, drifters and grifters of all walks rolled in like tumbleweed, drinking up the multitude of vices the seedy section offered – saloons and gambling houses are just a few examples. Name the trouble and it was available.
Rowdy and largely felonious, it was a place where only hardened individuals bunked. Even famed lawman Wyatt Earp, before his Dodge City days, indulged in early Wichita’s nefarious activities, possibly too much. In 1876, he was decommissioned as a city police officer after bloodying up a candidate running for county sheriff. Andy Griffith he was not.
Though its unlawfulness is long in the past, the community’s rough and tumble personality continues to play out in a considerably more civilized venue, on the basketball court.
This year’s Shockers, much like Wichita’s historical wayfarers, are a rugged, cast-iron group poised to buck the competition in what should be a wild, wild NCAA tournament.
Here are five reasons why Wichita St., a 4 seed in the East region, has realistic odds of blazing a trail to San Antonio:
1. Offensive firepower. Unpredictably, the Shockers’ identity did a complete 180 this season. No longer reliant on unyielding, half-court centered defense, they underwent a makeover, becoming more of a scoring beauty queen. Their 1.22 points per possession scored through conference tournament action ranks No. 5 nationally.
Wichita’s terrific blend of strong post presences – Shaq Morris, Rashard Kelley, Darrall Willis and x-factor Markus McDuffie – with sharp outside shooters – Landry Shamet, Connor Frankamp and Austin Reaves – bend and break defenses. Collectively, they drain 38.5 percent from three, 53.8 percent from two an, to add insult to injury, 73.5 percent on freebies. In other words, they can beat you in multiple facets.
2. Unselfishness. Crisp with the basketball, the Shockers move the ball around with precise fluidity. Blessed with plentiful ball handlers who are disciplined in their execution and always willing to make the extra pass, they rank No. 3 nationally in assists to field goals made. It explains why six different Shockers 20-plus percentage of shots taken. Ball hogging need not apply.
3. Experience. In this day and age of extreme roster turnover due to loose transfer rules and the ridiculous one-and-done rule, it’s uncommon to see a roster at a major program flush with upperclassmen. According to KenPom.com, no school boasts more experience among this year’s NCAA tournament batch. Morris, McDuffie, Frankamp and Zach Brown have wielded swords in their fair share of postseason battles. Under the bright lights, their veteran leadership will prove invaluable.
4. Depth. Flush with able bodies, is THE deepest team in the field. Just over 40 percent of Shocker minutes played come off the bench, well above the 31.6 percent nationwide average. Compared to bench baby pools Duke and Kansas, Wichita is a bottomless abyss. If the whistles mount or exhaustion sets in, it has the luxury to call up fresh troops. As seen with national champ North Carolina last year, depth is often a key characteristic of Final Four or title-winning teams.
5. Toughness. Appropriately named head coach Gregg Marshall is a fierce and fiery competitor. His infectious energy and intensity on the sidelines typically rubs off on his pupils. It explains why his club tucks inside the top-15 nationally in defensive and offensive rebounding percentage and transitioned flawlessly from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic conference this year. When push comes to shove, Wichita throws elbows. That firm determination is critical in maintaining focus and fighting through extreme adversity.
To be fair, the Shockers are not without defects. Largely due to an aversion stretching to the perimeter (35.7 3PT% allowed), they check in at No. 100 in adjusted defensively efficiency. Whether operating in man or zone, they must tighten up in order to survive and advance.
If they can string it all together, Wichita St. is sure to mosey into San Antonio looking for trouble, and a national title.
Ignoring the obvious chalk on the top two lines, here are four additional underdogs (No. 3 seeds or lower) from each region that could steal the show:
Michigan Wolverines (28-7, No. 3 seed, West region) – During Michigan’s scorching end-of-year run one of my producers, who was visiting Las Vegas at the time, peppered me with texts picking my brain on NCAA tournament futures. He presented odds on usual suspects Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, but when he informed me the Wolverines were 18/1, I immediately responded with “bust out a cartoon-sized hammer.” Michigan, much like Wichita St., is a team I’m infatuated with. A gathered storm at peak intensity down the stretch, it unleashed scoring torrents leading up to and through the Big Ten tourney. The Wolverines are an exceptional passing, screening and spacing team. They rarely commit turnovers, splash often behind the arc and slash defenses to death. Berlin baller Mo Wagner’s uncommon versatility for his size is what sparks their energy. His ability to convert outside shots (39.4 3PT%), attack off dribble and stake claim around the rim spreads defenses and creates high-percentage opportunities for marksmen Duncan Robinson, Muhammad-Ali Abur-Rahkman, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole. Not outdone on the opposite end, the Wolverines rank No. 6 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency giving up a mere 0.93 points per possession. Free-throw shooting (65.7%) and only sporadic second-chance opportunities are its weaknesses, but Michigan, arguably the hottest team entering the Madness, is tremendously well-coached and highly efficient in John Beilein’s motion system. Fingers crossed, it cashes.
Alabama Crimson Tide (19-15, No. 9 seed, East region) – A virtual tidal wave in the SEC tournament, the Tide, a borderline at-large team entering March, promptly ended all discussions about whether or not it belonged. Surging at the most opportune time, ‘Bama is playing with the fervor of a ticked off hippopotamus. During its resplendent run in St. Louis, it actually displayed scoring competency. Collin Sexton, a likely NBA lottery pick, was nothing shy of spectacular. He issued gut punches as a scorer, distributor and defender. Equipped with a high-RPM motor, he’s fully prepared to carry his teammates far and wide. Gangly big Danta Hall (72.1 2PT%), gunner John Petty (35.5 3PT%) and ball hawk Herbert Jones only complicate the opposition’s game plan. Throw in the Tide’s elite defense – they ranked top-20 nationally in pts/poss allowed, effective field-goal percentage D, two-point percentage D and block percentage – and a formula for success takes shape. However, maintaining offensive consistency is imperative for Avery Johnson’s club to cut deep. It shot only 30.3-percent from three in SEC regular season play, coughed up the rock on nearly 20 percent of its possessions and struggled on the glass. Still, if the corner turned on offense sustains, an Elite Eight appearance is entirely attainable though Villanova will be a tall task in Round 2.
Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (28-5, No. 11 seed, South region) – The last time the Ramblers danced in 1985 “cool” dudes sported parachute pants, leather jackets with excessive zippers and pop and locked to Billy Ocean chart topper “Loverboy.” So it’s been a minute since Loyola last suited up for an NCAA tournament game, but its lengthy absence will be well worth the wait. Unequivocally, my favorite mid-major in this year’s field, Porter Moser’s club executes brilliantly on both ends. Collectively, it hits an absurd 40 percent from three and 56 percent from two while giving up a mere 0.97 points per possession. Though questionable rebounding and occasional turnover bouts have lowered Loyola at times, its balance, crisp ball movement and unyielding defense says no one should immediately write it off. If the Ramblers’ bevy of three-point shooters – Clayton Custer, Marques Townes, Donte Ingram and Luke Williamson each shoot 40 percent or better from distance – scorch the nets, they’ll undoubtedly advance out of the opening round and possibly beyond. Recall they invaded Gainesville and undercut the Gators in early December. The Ramblers are undaunted and downright dangerous. It would be no surprise to see them win a pair of games.
Davidson Wildcats (21-11, No. 12 seed, South region) – The sharp clawed Wildcats, remarkably well coached under Bob McKillop, are very much a predatory animal. They’re disciplined and stunningly efficient on offense. Smooth in their passing and precise in their cuts, they can pick apart the competition. On they year, they rank top-20 in four different offensive categories, including offensive efficiency, three-pointers made, two-point percentage and free-throw percentage. Yes, there likely isn’t another Steph Curry on the roster, but Peyton Aldridge, a 6-foot-8 power forward with serious range, Kellan Grady, KiShawn Pritchett and arguably the greatest name in the Dance, Jon Axel Gudmundsson, can all stroke it. Defensively, Davidson leaves much to be desired. It allowed 1.03 points per possession and ranked outside the top-180 in two-point and three-point percentage defense. Still, the Wildcats’ offensive approach is surgical. Their opening round opponent, Kentucky, is peaking at the right time and has the length to disrupt along the perimeter, but if Coach Cal’s group reverts to the cold-shooting, mistake-prone team witnessed earlier this year, Davidson feasts.
New Mexico St. Aggies (28-5, No. 12 seed, Midwest region) – You can have Texas A&M. The real group of Aggies to fear are the representatives from Las Cruces. New Mexico St. is a menacing bunch featuring the necessary tools to advance a round or two. No, that isn’t a tequila-influenced hot take. Thanks to Jermerrio Jones, who at 6-foot-5 is Dennis Rodman with an offensive game, the Aggies rank top-30 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Most times, it’s one shot and done against them. Sound defensively, they also tuck inside the top-15 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Zach Lofton, Eli Chuha and Jonathon Wilkins also pack a significant offensive punch whether levying haymakers inside or out. Negatively, Chris Jans’ club needs to swish more shots from distance (34 percent as a team) and at the free-throw line (64 percent), but it has the glass-cleaning might and staunch defense to tie knots. Remember, they toppled Miami in late December and showed well against other high-major competition. Matched against a slumping Clemson team without Donte Grantham in the opening round, New Mexico St. has all the makings of a classic 12-of-5 Cinderella. And that’s just the start of what could be an improbable multi-game run.
Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:
• At least one No. 12 seed has advanced beyond the opening round 15 of the past 18 years. In the second round No. 12s are 20-31 (39.2%) all-time.
• Though the 12-5 matchup gets all the press, No. 11 seeds have actually logged more success. Since the field expanded in 1985, 11s have ousted No. 6s 37.1 percent of the time. Three marched out of Round 1 last year.
• A No. 16 has never defeated a No. 1, though Alonzo Mourning still wakes up in cold sweats about Princeton.
• Since 1985, No. 13 seeds have survived the opening round 19.6 percent of the time; No. 14s 15.9 percent; No. 15s 6.1 percent. Middle Tennessee St.’s bracket-shredding take down of Michigan St. in 2016, a No. 15 over a No. 2, was the last great tourney upset.
• First Four winners have had considerable success. In the seven years of their existence, one has reached the Round of 32 every year, including USC in 2017. Three of those seven years one marched onto the Sweet Sixteen.
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