In the current landscape of the NCAA Tournament, where upsets are now rather ordinary, it has become increasingly common for Cinderellas to go to the ball.
The rarity is when Cinderella stays past midnight.
It’s 11:00 p.m. and No. 9-seed Wichita State is still dancing.
“They play so well, but just like Cinderella, when the clock strikes 12, everything disappears and the magic goes away,” Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith said. “We want to be that clock that strikes and they turn back into a normal team.”
The only thing standing in No. 2 Ohio State’s way from making a second consecutive trip to the Final Four are the Shockers, a team that’s already made an improbable run to the Elite Eight by topping No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 1 Gonzaga and, most recently, No. 13 La Salle on Thursday evening.
Wichita State is the unquestionable Cinderella of the West Region, but the Shockers have passed the threshold that separates them from simply being a common early-round bracket-buster to a team that could potentially claim college basketball’s biggest prize.
And if they do, they join elite company that has proven that Cinderella can, in fact, persevere. George Mason – the original bell of the ball – made the Final Four in 2006 as a No. 11 seed before No. 11 VCU and No. 8 Butler both did the same five years later.
“We just have a great basketball program, we have tradition and we have history,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. “We are not named South Central Kansas State. We’re Wichita State.”
That’s the difference. Winning in the first round of the NCAA Tournament wasn’t the ultimate goal for Wichita State. It was a necessary feat in order to advance to this point in the tournament, and it was a clear program goal to arrive here.
Three victories into the tournament – including one over the No. 1 overall seed – and the Shockers are closing in on what the program has already achieved.
Wichita State went to the Final Four in 1965 and last went to the Elite Eight in 1981, but now has proven – in the bright lights of Los Angeles during the modern age of college basketball – that it is a program that’s no longer in the shadows.
“Were just trying to show that it doesn’t matter what conference you play in,” Shockers senior forward Carl Hall said. “Anybody can play with anybody. When the NCAA Tournament starts, there is no No. 1 team. When they throw the ball up, the teams are even. Everyone deserves to be there.”
And so the element of surprise is gone, and the distinction of Cinderella is gone. Wichita State, a Missouri Valley Conference team, is one of the best eight teams in college basketball.
The Shockers have Ohio State’s attention.
“I think sometimes early on that teams can get caught by surprise,” OSU forward Sam Thompson said. “Sometimes anything can happen in the tournament. You can shoot the ball poorly in a half or get into foul trouble and that can open up a window for teams to get wins, but that doesn’t happen for three or four games in a row. They have proven they belong in the Elite Eight.
“Wichita State has won three games in a row in this tournament and they really made their mark on this tournament. They knocked out Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the country for a few weeks at the end of the season, so we know that they are here to play.”
BAD-SHOT MAKER: Deshaun Thomas has already proven to the world that he is one of the most lethal scorers in college basketball, but Marshall has an interesting perspective when watching Ohio State’s junior forward play.
“I say this as a compliment,” Marshall said, “He is a bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker. That’s hard to do, but that’s how talented he is. He can take bad shots and make them. What we have to do is make him take bad shots and hopefully (he’ll) miss.”
What is interesting about Thomas is that he is aware that he doesn’t always make the best judgment calls on the offensive end, and there are even times – believe it or not – where he’ll second-guess his decision to shoot.
But Ohio State has learned to live with Thomas’ sometimes-sporadic decision making because the Buckeyes’ simply need the junior’s scoring. And even if Thomas does force shots, it’s easier for OSU assistant coach Chris Jent to accept when they go in.
“I am a scorer, and I want to put the ball in the hole,” Thomas said. “Sometimes I take bad shots, but sometimes Coach Jen always appreciates it and says, ‘It went in, so it’s a good shot now.’ I just try not to think about bad shots and good shots and just try to stay aggressive. Sometimes they are questionable, but when they go in it’s fine.”
A year ago, Thomas averaged 19.2 points per game during the NCAA Tournament while helping guide OSU to the Final Four. Through three tournament wins this season, Thomas has scored 66 points (22.0 points per game) on 55.0 percent shooting from the floor (22-for-40).
As long as the results are there, it’s hard to argue with Thomas’ approach.
“I can go 0-for-10, but I am going to keep shooting,” Thomas said. “That’s the mentality because I know I am going to get on a hot streak. That’s a scorer’s mentality. Every good scorer, you can’t just stop shooting because its bad shots. You have to be aggressive because a great scorer can get hot at any moment.”
Time Travel: While the rest of the Ohio State basketball team couldn’t wait to get under the California sun, Matta privately lamented the thought of traveling across the country and through three different time zones.
So it’s no coincidence that Ohio State’s 73-70 win over Arizona in the Sweet 16 on Thursday was the Buckeyes’ first game in the Pacific Time in Matta’s nine years guiding the program and their furthest trip west since playing in the NCAA Tournament regional in San Antonio in 2007.
“If I can keep it kind of Midwest or south,” Matta said, “I would probably prefer that.”
Matta’s back issues have been well documented, and encountering discomfort during long flights is one of the reasons he likes avoiding them. However, he also fears it takes longer for his team to adjust to the switch in time zones.
In Ohio State’s most recent contact revision with Matta, it extended personal hours on a private plane to help the coach be more comfortable during recruiting visits.
But Arizona head coach Sean Miller, who coached under Matta for four years at Xavier, recalled that he simply liked being home.
“When we would go recruiting together at Xavier, we could be as far as eight hours away, and it could be 10 o'clock at night, and he would give you that look like, ’Why don't we just get home?’ ” Miller said. “ ‘Why don’t we just stay in the hotel and drive tomorrow morning or fly?’ But it was always drive, and it was always there and back.’ ”
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