INDIANAPOLIS — For a team that’s been a NCAA Tournament regular much of the past decade, Wichita State is still a bit taken aback by its latest appearance.
Then again, the Shockers seemed an unlikely participant following a tumultuous offseason featuring the exits of seven players, followed by the preseason resignation of longtime coach Gregg Marshall amid allegations of verbal and physical abuse. Then came a COVID-19 pause and withdrawal from a season-opening tournament before interim replacement Isaac Brown could coach his first game.
Brown has led the Shockers (16-5) back from the chaos well enough to shake the interim tag last month amid a stunning run of nail-biting victories befitting their nickname. They clinched their first American Athletic Conference regular season championship before losing the semifinal to Cincinnati but earned a No. 11 seed in their first NCAA berth since 2018.
Extending their surprising season means getting past fellow No. 11 Drake (25-4) in Thursday night’s First Four matchup in West Lafayette, Indiana, but all things considered they’re OK with the play-in path. The winner faces No. 6 seed USC in Saturday’s first round.
“I’m just happy that we got in the tournament,” said sophomore guard Tyson Etienne, the AAC’s co-player of the year. “Obviously, you wish you don’t have to play the play-in game, but everything happens for a reason in life.
“The play-in game may be a blessing in disguise. That’s what card was drawn, and that’s fine. We’re going to play the play-in game, we’ll give it our all and what happens after that is what happens.”
Certainly, a lot has happened to Wichita State since last fall.
Among the departures were high-scoring guards Erik Stevenson and Jamarius Burton, though Marshall believed his incoming class of freshmen and transfers could spur a rebound. The Shockers’ winningest coach — who guided them to the 2013 Final Four and 34-0 start the following season — was soon gone, resigning on Nov. 17 amid an internal investigation by an outside law firm hired by the school.
Brown, a career assistant who had been on Marshall’s staff since 2014, was tapped to hold things together. But even he wasn’t sure who he’d have or where they could go.
“When I first took the job, those guys came here to play for a Hall of Fame coach,” Brown said this week. “I wasn’t sure who was going to come back, who was going to stay. We had a couple guys that talked about opting out. The first meeting, all I talked about was myself and the staff and how we were going to give those guys 110% every day. We needed you guys to trust us no matter what.”
WSU not only bought in to Brown, who called on veteran former head coach Billy Kennedy for guidance, they’ve done so showing impressive focus through 10 COVID postponements or cancellations at other AAC schools and tense game moments.
The Shockers are 9-3 in games decided by single digits, including a 68-63 win over then-No. 6 Houston on Feb. 18 during an eight-game winning streak. The run ended, fittingly, with last weekend’s 60-59 loss to the Bearcats.
Disappointed as they were not to win the AAC Tournament as the top seed, Brown believed the team had the credentials for March Madness.
“I felt like we had a good enough team to get to the NCAA Tournament and getting that big win versus Houston, I felt like that helped us tremendously,” said Brown, who was named AAC coach of the year a few weeks after getting a five-year contract with the school.
“We won the conference. There was no doubt in my mind if we just finished the season out right and didn’t take any bad losses that we were getting in.”
The Shockers enter their eighth NCAA appearance in nine years ranked 27th in field goal defense at 40.3%. Etienne (17.0 points per game) leads four starters averaging at least 9.4 points, not bad considering their tallest starter is 6-foot-8 forward Morris Udeze (9.8 points, 4.7 rebounds).
WSU will face a familiar Missouri Valley Conference foe in Drake, which is making its first NCAA appearance since 2008. The Shockers lead the series 104-47 and have beaten the Bulldogs 11 consecutive times, but they know records mean little in March when a team is determined.
WSU has proven that in getting this far.
“Honestly, we got a great group of guys who are mature and who want to win,” senior guard Alterique Gilbert, a UConn transfer. “It was just kind of magical, in my opinion, of how the group just developed over the months and got better on and off the court.”