A casual college basketball fan might look at Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second-round matchup between No. 3 seed University of Miami and 11th-seeded Wichita State and figure the Hurricanes are clear favorites.
Nope. Think again.
Wichita State is no ordinary No. 11 seed. In fact, Vegas lists the Shockers as 2 1/2 point favorites over the Canes. Yes, an 11 is favored over a 3.
The Shockers have the nation’s top-rated defense in points allowed (59) and efficiency (according to KenPom analytics). They swarm, swat and smother all game long. They are led by the phenomenal senior backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, who reached the Final Four as freshmen, were 35-1 as sophomores and beat Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16 last March.
Wichita State’s records the past four seasons: 30-9, 35-1, 30-4 and 26-8 so far this season. The Shockers’ roster includes five seniors, including three in their fifth year.
This is a team so old that UM coach Jim Larrañaga said, half-jokingly, “I think there are some NBA teams that are younger than Wichita State. They’re fifth-year seniors, and some of these NBA guys are 19 years old.”
So, how does a team with such ferocious defense, experience and backcourt brilliance wind up on the tournament bubble, relegated to the First Four play-in in Dayton and then enter the bracket as a No. 11?
Their résumé did not look as good on paper as the team looks in person. They had only one Top 50 RPI win, over Utah. They lost five nonconference games, but three of them were without VanVleet, who sat out with a hamstring injury. They lost in-conference to Illinois State and twice to Northern Iowa, including in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinals.
But none of that mattered this week. The Shockers rolled over Vanderbilt by 20 in the play-in game, and then, in the first round on Thursday, held sixth-seeded Arizona, a team that averaged 81 points a game, to 19 first-half points en route to a 65-55 victory.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall’s motto is “Play Angry.’’ The players wear the slogan on their T-shirts, and it is particularly true this week as the Shockers feel the selection committee disrespected them.
Upon arriving here Wednesday, VanVleet said: “We just take all of that as ammunition and just keep letting that chip on our shoulder get bigger and bigger.’’
The Hurricanes say they pay no mind to seedings.
“One thing I think is very important for the fans to understand and the media to understand is that seeding at this point is meaningless,” Larrañaga said. “Wichita State was an 11 seed and had to play in the First Four. And they very easily could have been a 2, 3 or 4 seed, had Fred [VanVleet] not gotten injured. I think it’s all about how you’re playing now.”
Saturday’s game between the Canes and Shockers will likely come down to the backcourt matchups between Rodriguez and VanVleet, and Sheldon McClellan and Ron Baker.
Larrañaga and Marshall both see a lot of similarities between Rodriguez and VanVleet.
“They’re similar size, both very confident, very talented,” Marshall said. “Definitely the alpha dogs of their teams. They set the table for the other teammates and make them look good. They come up with great passes, play tenacious defense.”
Said Larrañaga: “I think they are very, very similar. It begins with the intangible qualities both players have. They’re both highly competitive and terrific floor generals. They can shoot the three and distribute the ball. But maybe the most important thing they do is they’re tremendous defensively.”
Rodriguez said he has “always been a fan’’ of VanVleet’s.
VanVleet thinks some of the comparisons with Rodriguez are based on their appearance.
“I was arguing with the team last night that if we didn’t look so much alike other than being a point guard with similar hair and the same skin tone, would there be these comparisons,” VanVleet said. “I do wonder if I was super dark-skinned or super bright, if we would still get those comparisons.
“But [Rodriguez] is a heck of a point guard. He definitely runs the show. Change of pace, obviously he’s a smaller guy, so he has to have all those tricks and be crafty to get the job done, and he does it. He’s super good off the bounce, creating for his team in pick-and-roll situations, and he makes big shots. Those are all similarities that I have as well.”
Rodriguez said he is “not surprised whatsoever’’ to see the Shockers favored.
“I think throughout the year we’ve been disrespected, to a lot of people we haven’t done enough to prove ourselves, but this is March, and the spread doesn’t mean anything,’’ he said.
Saturday: No. 3 seed UM men vs. No. 11 Wichita State
When, where: 12:10 p.m.; Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence, R.I.
Records: UM 26-7; Wichita St. 26-8.
TV, radio: CBS; WQAM (560), WVUM (90.5 FM).
Scouting report: The Hurricanes are playing a team that has even more experience than they do, as the senior-loaded Shockers went to the Final Four three years ago and the Sweet 16 last season. All eyes will be on the guard battle between the UM senior duo of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan and Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.