WICHITA, Kans. -- Each time I tweet about Wichita State, or even mention the Shockers in passing, there are countless people anxious to explain (with few facts or details) that this Missouri Valley Conference program is undeserving of its national ranking and not nearly as good as most think. These critics are usually fans of schools from power conferences who presumably fall into a category of folks who have never actually watched Wichita State play. But, regardless, they exist. And they're loud. And they're annoying.
So the first thing I did when I arrived in this midwestern city is ask the principal characters if they're also annoyed by this, and, specifically, if they believe what I believe -- that this season's Wichita State team is better than the team everybody watched make the Final Four last season. I figured they probably know themselves better than some ACC fan with a Syracuse avatar knows them. So I asked if they're better this year than last.
"Yeah, I think so," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall.
"We didn't start 19-0 last year," added sophomore Fred VanVleet. "So you could say that."
"I'd like to think so," added sophomore Ron Baker.
"I wasn't here last season," explained first-year Wichita State assistant Steve Forbes. "But, yeah, I think we're probably better this season than they were last season."
I asked others the same question -- "Is this year's team better than last year's team?" -- but surely you get the point already, so there's no need to also list their responses. Still, know this: Literally nobody hesitated, said it'd be wise to take a wait-and-see approach or rolled their eyes at the idea. To a man, everybody agreed this year's team is better than last year's team, and last year's team is the one that started 19-2 and finished 30-9 after beating Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four, where they played Louisville closer than anybody else in the NCAA tournament.
Did you doubt that Wichita State team?
If not, you're silly to doubt this Wichita State team.
At this point, the only reason you could be doing it is because of Wichita State's league affiliation, and, historically, judging a team based on league affiliation has proven dumb. It didn't matter that Memphis was in Conference USA in 2008 because Memphis had John Calipari, Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, and it didn't matter that Butler was in the Horizon League in 2010 because Butler had Brad Stevens, Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. Likewise, it shouldn't matter that Wichita State is in the MVC in 2014 because Wichita State has Marshall, VanVleet and Baker (not to mention Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter), and that coach and those players are collectively special.
Are the Shockers really the nation's fourth-best team like the coaches poll suggests?
And, either way, I'm uninterested in debating whether they deserve a 4, 5 or 10 beside their name because that's all debatable. What's not debatable, though, is that Wichita State is really good and a serious threat to again make the Final Four. According to an unbiased statistical analysis at KenPom, the Shockers are performing at a higher level than Duke and every member of the Big 12 and SEC, including Kansas and Florida. That guarantees nothing going forward, of course. But it proves this team could win big in any league.
Why are the Shockers better without two of their top three scorers from last season?
Some of it is because of the development of Early, a former JUCO star who is the favorite to win MVC Player of the Year. And it should be noted that Baker is statistically better in every relevant category, which suddenly has this 6-foot-3 guard on NBA radars. "It's weird," Baker said. "I'd never read a sentence with my name and the word 'NBA' in it until now."
Also: This team is statistically better offensively and defensively.
And the Shockers almost never turn the ball over.
Which brings me to VanVleet.
He's not the most experienced player on the roster, and he's not even somebody who started for last season's Final Four team. But ask anyone about the biggest reason Wichita State has remained nationally relevant, and they'll almost certainly start by raving about the 5-foot-11 point guard who is Wichita State's only top-100 high school prospect.
"He's a leader, a competitor and a warrior," Marshall said. "Whatever it is, he has it. I knew he was good and that he'd be good. But I didn't know he'd be this good already."
VanVleet served as a backup to senior Malcolm Armstead last season and has encountered no issues replacing him. He's shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 44.7 percent from 3-point range, and his assist to turnover ratio is basically 5-to-1. He's the one who talks in practices. He's the one who talks in games. He's a prospect who committed to Wichita State early, then stayed true to that commitment when bigger schools called throughout a tremendous run through the AAU circuit during the summer before his senior year of high school.
How many schools tried to get VanVleet to decommit?
"Off the top of my head ... Iowa, Clemson, Stanford, Creighton, Kansas, Illinois, Providence, Nebraska and Tennessee," answered Doc Cornell, who coached VanVleet on a relatively small summer team called Pryme Tyme. "All of those schools, and more, started calling."
The increase in attention came after VanVleet led a team devoid of high-major talent -- "It was Fred and Marcus Posley, who went to Ball State, and just a bunch of dudes," Marshall said -- to one win after another in a tournament in which he dominated Yogi Ferrell (now at Indiana) and Andrew Harrison (now at Kentucky). It was remarkable to watch, and that's how VanVleet went from a nobody to a consensus top-100 national prospect.
"He was the MVP of a tournament with all of these great point guards," Cornell said. "So then these other schools started calling. But one of the things my guys have always been is loyal."
That's what both Cornell and Marshall seem to love most about VanVleet.
He's always shown loyalty.
Truth is, VanVleet was many times asked to leave Cornell's summer program for a more high-profile program, but he never did. And he was quite literally begged to decommit from Wichita State before signing in November 2011, but he never seriously considered it.
"Your mind wanders, but, at the same time, it all kind of made me angry because I was not a different player in July than I was in June ... and I know for a fact that some of the coaches who offered [late] had seen my games early [in the summer], but they didn't pick up on me then," VanVleet said. "I wasn't offended. But I was like, 'I'm a smart kid. I remember you. I know I saw you in the stands when I was playing. And now you want me?'"
Yes, young man, now we want you.
That's what at least a dozen staffs said.
The reason was simple -- because VanVleet consistently won games.
On that note, here's a funny story:
"We were down 12 that summer with two minutes left in a game to a team with Deonte Burton, who now plays at Marquette," Cornell said. "Then Marcus Posley gets hot, knocks down a few 3-pointers, and we've cut the lead to two points. So I tell Fred in the huddle, I said, 'We're going to run a pick-and-roll with you and Marcus, score and go into overtime because we've got the momentum.' So I call the play and everybody leaves the huddle."
Then VanVleet turned around.
"He looked at me and said, 'Doc, I'm ending this damn game,'" Cornell said with a laugh. "And I said, 'Well, if you've got the nuts to do it, go ahead and take the shot.'"
VanVleet took the shot.
"It was a 3-pointer from the volleyball line," Cornell said. "All bottoms."
"I think they went like 62-2 that summer," Marshall said.
"Fred was with me from 8th grade through his senior year of high school," Cornell added. "He helped lead us to a record of 176-13 in that time."
So should it really be surprising that VanVleet now has Wichita State 19-0?
All VanVleet's doing now -- running a winning team that's better than the sum of its parts -- is what he's been doing forever, and he's playing for a coach who has made a career out of doing exactly the same thing. So discount Wichita State, if you want. And judge the Shockers on their league affiliation, if you must. But you sound silly.
Will they make another Final Four?
Again, who knows?
The NCAA tournament is little more than a series of 40-minute basketball games, and damn near anything can happen in a series of 40-minute basketball games. But don't think for a second that the Shockers aren't good enough to do it. They have one of the nation's best total-package point guards, a pro prospect beside him, the likely MVC Player of the Year beside them, and a coach who has averaged 28 wins the past four seasons.
Bottom line, Wichita State has more answers than questions.
That's the truth.
So I'm sorry the Shockers don't play in the ACC.
But, if you're an ACC fan, you better be glad they don't.