Like La Salle, Wichita State is battle-tested

Coach Gregg Marshall said Wichita State survived the Missouri Valley Conference "bloodbath." La Salle was equally challenged in the Atlantic Ten.
Coach Gregg Marshall said Wichita State survived the Missouri Valley Conference "bloodbath." La Salle was equally challenged in the Atlantic Ten. (GEORGE FREY / Associated Press)
Posted: March 27, 2013

With occasional exceptions such as those Gulf Coasters who just left town, NCAA Cinderella stories tend toward the parochial.

The La Salle Explorers are the talk of this city, home of the Southwest Philly Floater, but La Salle's unexpected NCAA Sweet 16 game on Thursday will be late at night and up the cable listing.

Halfway across the country, La Salle's next foe has its own underdog vibe going. After No. 9 Wichita State knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga, the nation's top-ranked team in the last AP poll, the Shockers returned home Sunday to a small crowd at the airport, cars racing alongside the bus, and 3,000 people at a rally on campus.

This won't be another one of those mirror-image matchups. More like X-ray opposites.

"I've always said this team is going to defend and rebound every night, with very few exceptions," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said on a conference call. "When the stars align and the shooting gets going, it can be really, really special."

That's what happened late against Gonzaga, when Wichita State made seven consecutive late three-pointers. Goodbye, Zags.

"We're shooting the cover off the ball," Marshall said.

He knows what La Salle is all about, that handling the Explorers' quick-quicker-quickest guards will be a chore, and if it's La Salle that gets going from the outside, the advantage turns hard toward the 13 seed from Olney Avenue, since the Explorers know how to defend the three-pointer with their switching man-to-man.

Wichita State (28-8) and La Salle (24-9) have one big trait in common. Marshall referred to it Monday when he talked about his team's getting through the Missouri Valley Conference, finishing second to Creighton.

"The Valley is just a bloodbath. It's just a war of attrition," Marshall said.

Pretty much like this season's Atlantic Ten. Yes, Wichita State lost a couple of times to unheralded Evansville and at last-place Southern Illinois.

"You try going to Southern Illinois," Marshall said. "People say it's a bad loss. It's not a bad loss."

We'll take his word for it. A common opponent for Wichita State and La Salle, Virginia Commonwealth, makes the case for parity in this game. The big win for the Explorers this season was the one at VCU. That was the top line on the resumé, allowing them to squeeze into the field as the second-to-last team.

But Wichita State did that, too, getting out of Richmond with a win in one of the louder places in college hoops, especially when VCU gets its full-court havoc defensive pressure going.

"We just never got in a hurry," Marshall said. "VCU tries to speed you up, make bad decisions."

So you can't automatically assume La Salle's guard advantage will carry the day again. The Shockers are multifaceted, even if their offense occasionally goes south. And expect to see buckets inside from the other guys.

"Interesting contrast in styles," Wichita State's coach said.

Marshall is all right with his guys enjoying the ride, although he made a point of saying that the gathering on campus was a pep rally, not a celebration of what already had been accomplished.

When the Shockers landed Sunday in Wichita, Kan., somebody from a private plane that had just stopped for refueling asked whether a man on the plane could come over and speak to the team.

"Some of you might go play in the NBA or you might have great lives," Tim Tebow then told the Shockers, stopping on their bus before jumping back on the plane. "But this is the time you will remember. All of you all together, ballin' out there together, training together, putting in the heart and sweat, everything, caring about each other. You'll never forget it, guys."

March Madness seems to produce those kinds of random encounters. Tebow and the Shockers. Sure, why not?

The unexpected encounters always extend to the court. Momentum barely makes it past the opening tip. Marshall put it this way: The tournament is always putting another opponent in front of you, and one off night ends the excitement.

Contact Mike Jensen at Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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