The story of the tournament is unquestionably the rise of the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, the straight out of Dunk City 15 seed who advanced to the Sweet 16. They've got an array of high flying GIFs, a interesting coach with a supermodel wife, an undeniable sense of swagger, and the unshakable idea that they hail from a school that doesn't really exist. They're basically the perfect media story, and I undeniably love them.
Lost in that shuffle is another huge and worthy underdog story, that of the 9 seeded Wichita State Shockers.
Unlike perhaps other mid-major success stories, the Shockers aren't without a basketball pedigree. Wichita State actually made a Final Four back in 1965, albeit back when only 23 teams made the tournament (fun fact: MVP of that tourney? Future Senator and Presidential candidate Bill Bradley out of Princeton). They also made a regional final in 1981. They've been solid in recent memory too, as WSU earned a 5 seed last season (they were upset by VCU in the first round), and beat Alabama for the NIT title the year before.
This year's edition of the Shockers has more than few notches on their belt as well. WSU won at VCU and at Air Force, clobbered Iowa, knocked off Southern Miss, and took out the Creighton Fightin' McDermonts when the Blue Jays were 12th in the country. They also found ways to lose to really terrible teams, like Southern Illinois, and to Evansville twice. WSU still finished 12-6 in conference, and coupled with a strong out of league resume, they had more than enough heft to their profile to grab a 9 seed.
Many Mid Major-y teams like to ride a similar blueprint to NCAA success. They'll try to slow down the pace of the game, play strong defense, and hope to catch fire in a barrage of threes, perhaps led by one particularly transcendent guard. Long range shooting was undeniably a major factor in the Shocker's upset of top-seeded Gonzaga (they shot a completely ridiculous 14-28 from downtown), but it isn't really the main weapon of the Wichita State attack. In their blowout victory over Pitt in round one, the Shockers were 2-20. Wichita State is comfortable playing games in the 70s, but they really want to beat you on the glass and on the line.
That effort starts with 6-8 junior Cleanthony Early, the Shocker's leading scorer and second leading rebounder, at 13.7 and 5.3 respectively. Early isn't much of a three point shooter (he did hit 4 against Gonzaga, although I had 3 in that game), but he can get to the line and convert, block shots (about a block a game) and score from the inside. Early isn't a very prolific scorer, but he is reliable, and can produce a lot even when he isn't playing major minutes, which he doesn't, because foul trouble will be an issue for him.
Early is flanked down low by 6-8 senior Carl Hall, who adds 12.7 points and a team leading 7 boards a game, along with 1.6 blocks. Hall is even more proficient at getting to the line (over 5 attempts a game), shoots efficiently, and takes care of the basketball. Like Early, Hall isn't likely to take over a game with his scoring (he's hit 20 points once since Dec 20th), but he's very methodical and consistent. The presence of both Hall and Early will test Ohio State's newfound commitment to their effective small-ball lineup, where Deshaun Thomas is the tallest guy on the court. 7 foot senior Ehimen Orukpe adds an additional defensive force in limited minutes, although he's unlikely to stuff the box score outside of his rebounding ability.
The Shockers are small after those two, but not without weapons. 6-0 senior Malcolm Armstead leads the way, with 10.8 ppg and a team leading 4 dimes a game, along with 1.9 steals. Armstead brings nearly a 2:1 assists to turnover ratio to his relentless pursuit of passing lanes and three pointers. Armstead hits from downtown at a 35% clip, attempting 4.5 shots a game. He added 11 points and 6 dimes against the strong defensive pressure of VCU, dropped 14 on Iowa, but was mostly quiet against Gonzaga. Ohio State will need to win this matchup and make sure Armstead never gets comfortable.
One of the few underclassmen, 6-3 freshman Ron Baker, adds a 4th scoring option at 8.6 ppg. Baker has three point ranger (35% from downtown), can get steals (.9 a game), and can get on the glass as well (4 boards a game during the tourney). He had a huge game against Gonzaga, slapping up a 16-6-4, and could be a major X-factor for the Shockers.
The Shockers aren't just happy to be here. This is a vet-lead group led by an excellent coach who won't be afraid of Ohio State. Fans looking at the names on the front of the jerseys and expecting a walk of a victory may be disappointed. Few things are easy at this point in the game.
A key storyline to this game will be how Ohio State deals with Wichita's taller players. Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel struggled to stay on the floor and be effective against Arizona, and the Buckeyes experienced newfound offensive success with a smallball lineup featuring Thomas at the 5, at perhaps the expense of a little interior defense. Ohio State will still have a strong size advantage on the wings, and if they're able to play that lineup without getting clobbered by Early and Hall, Ohio State has a great shot at being successful. Heck, if they're able to get 15-20 solid minutes from Ravenel, that might not even matter.
Holy War. Nothing is going to be easy in the Elite Eight, no matter who you are playing, but unless the Shockers hit another 14 three pointers, the signs point to the Buckeyes being able to pull off a close victory. A Craft/Scott backcourt, with Lenzelle and Slam Thompson covering the wings, could cause some significant matchup issues for the Shockers, to say nothing of a suddenly rejuvenated LaQuinton Ross. Expect the Buckeyes to start a little slow, with Wichita State making some big shots, before Ohio State's superior depth and star power carries the day to a close victory, paving the way for a Final Four berth. Let's go Buckeyes, 68-61.