Wichita State is not your typical No. 11 seed.
That much is clear following the Shockers’ first two games in the NCAA Tournament.
After dominating Vanderbilt on Tuesday, Wichita overpowered Arizona on Thursday by a final score of 65-55. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker were the stars as usual, scoring 16 and 13 points while also doing all of the little things needed to win.
The craziest thing about this game? It wasn’t really even as close as the final score would indicate. Arizona used a late run to make the score more respectable as the Shockers took the pedal off of the gas after getting out to a 24-point lead with 12 minutes to go.
Wichita State just smothered Arizona with their nation-best defense. The Wildcats came into this game as a top-20 offense. But in the end, 19 was the opportune number for all the wrong reasons for them.
That’s the number of points they had by halftime.
And that’s the number of turnovers they had, compared to Wichita State’s six.
“Their defense speaks for itself,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after the game. “From the statistics that we looked at, they’re the nation’s No. 1 defensive team. We were that a couple years ago, and to me it felt like that. They didn’t just make it difficult for Arizona to score on them. They make it difficult for every team that plays against them to score.”
Simply put, it’s rare to see a Sean Miller-coached team get so out-hustled and physically overmatched defensively, but that’s exactly what happened here. Every time there was a loose ball, there was one more Wichita State player on the deck than an Arizona guy. Every time there was a rebound flying off the glass, it was a 50-50 shot as to who would get it despite Arizona’s distinct size advantage inside. And every time there was a transition opportunity, either offensively or defensively, Wichita State was the first team down the floor.
Basically, this game was the tale of both of these teams’ seasons. For this Arizona roster — led by Ryan Anderson and Gabe York — to get to 25 wins was an impressive coaching job by Miller and a testament to the players assembled. It’s also worth noting that they got saddled with a matchup they didn’t deserve in the first round given the Shockers’ talent level.
But in the end, the injuries and lack of experienced elite talent caught up to the Wildcats, especially on the defensive end. It stinks for seniors York, Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski, who epitomize a lot of what’s great about college basketball and who clearly were distraught on the bench at the end of the game. But this group just didn’t quite have the pieces to make a deep run toward the Final Four.
On the other side for Wichita State, the Shockers just did what they’ve done all season when healthy: defend like crazy, and get enough offense from the experienced backcourt to pick up wins. It’s a tried-and-true March method for them, and it seems to be working wonders again. Except this time, there’s one distinct difference: VanVleet and Baker are playing with the urgency of this being their final chance of a big run in the Dance.
Miami (Fla.) is the next team that gets a shot at derailing this train. The Hurricanes are a tough, athletic team that, under Jim Larranaga, won’t be afraid of the moment. The Hurricanes will be loose, and they’ll be ready to go.
That’s going to set up one of the must-watch games of the second round. Really, it’s quite rare to get games that will be played at this high of a level this early in the tournament.
And that makes sense. After all, Wichita State has proven at this point that the committee didn’t take it seriously enough.