ATLANTA – This is what becomes a common theme in such times: That when you consider what Wichita State did in college basketball this season, going from second place in the Missouri Valley Conference to a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, taking out the likes of Gonzaga and Ohio State to reach a Final Four, scaring the Churchill Downs out of Louisville in a national semifinal, that it should give hope to hundreds of teams around the country that such a journey is possible.
More like false hope.
The side that lost to Louisville 72-68 on Saturday at the Georgia Dome would have likely beat any other in the country over those particular 40 minutes.
Hundreds of others couldn’t have done so because hundreds of others don’t have this sort of toughness or defend with such physical purpose.
Louisville will play for a national championship on Monday evening, and that is expected and deserved, but you won’t find anyone within a mile of the Cardinals locker room that doesn’t believe their placement opposite Michigan in the title game includes a huge helping of fortune.
Gregg Marshall was right about his underdog team. Cinderella didn’t leave four glass slippers behind. Wichita State might have lacked the March pedigree of the other three Final Four teams, but the Shockers in advancing this far hardly proved deficient in ability.
Fairy tales in Kansas are about little girls roaming the land of Oz, not a team that took the No. 1 overall seed to the doorstep of elimination before blinking.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever felt exactly like this,” Marshall said. “Any time you lose your last game of a season … The only one time in my career where we won our last game was in 2011 in the NIT. It’s hard. This one is especially hard because of the run we went on. We set a school record for wins and are in the Final Four for the second time in school history.
“This may be the most important basketball game that I’ll ever coach. It’s definitely the most important to date and it’s probably the most important that Wichita State has ever played in.”
If so, the Shockers sure made the most of it.
Fact: You can’t press if you can’t score, and for the first 30 or so minutes, Louisville found making shots tougher than discovering a wrinkle in Rick Pitino’s dress shirt. Wichita State defends the key as well as any team nationally and made it near impossible for Louisville to get good chances inside.
The more the Cardinals missed from deep, the tougher it became to turn the Shockers over. The tougher it became to turn them over, the better chance Wichita State had at winning.
The Shockers led by 12 with 13:15 remaining. This was real.
Wichita State went 26 minutes without a turnover against what had been a frightening Louisville press this tournament and had just four over the game’s first 34 minutes.
This was very real.
But time wouldn’t speed up enough, so Louisville did. They turned Wichita State over on seven possessions in the final four minutes and made all the big shots and received all the big calls needed down the stretch to win such an momentous game.
You wonder what would have happened if a questionable double foul late hadn’t then led to the Cardinals gaining possession on a questionable tie-up with six seconds left in a three-point game.
You wonder if the Wichita State journey might have continued one more game.
“First, you’re elated to win and be in the championship game,” Pitino said. “But there’s always a part of you that looks at the other team and says, ‘They played their hearts out and were superb and lost.’ You appreciate them so much.”
This doesn’t happen to hundreds of teams. You don’t build a Final Four roster with high school, prep school, junior college and transfer recruits, with guys who pay their own way to school, a terrific forward (Cleanthony Early) who was all set to attend San Diego State until he was delayed for a week on a visit to Wichita State because of Hurricane Katrina and fell in love with small-town values and a team that enjoyed the game more than any he had ever known.
Hundreds of teams don’t have those kind of stories and aren’t this humble and hungry all at once.
Not to mention really, really good.
Wichita State held two Louisville starters scoreless Saturday, hassled point guard Peyton Siva into one of his worst college games and was tied with the heavily favored Cardinals at 60 with just over three minutes left on the game’s biggest stage and under its most intimidating glare.
I don’t know how much hope that gives others.
I just know the Wichita State team we watched these past three weeks had absolutely nothing to do with carriages that turn into pumpkins at midnight.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.