by Kevin Burton
The virus became real for me at March Madness time last year.
I went to work having heard that the NCAA had cancelled all the conference post-season basketball tournaments. In my heart, I knew that by the time I got home the big tournament would be cancelled.
And so it was.
That hurt. The pain was just beginning.
That such a huge moneymaking and cultural American event could be cancelled was my first big clue how serious things were. There had been other viruses including Ebola. I read about them in The Economist, but they didn’t affect me directly.
Covid 19 soon sprouted implications far, far beyond hoops. I’m not boiling it down to sports games, I’m just saying that’s where it started for me.
Fast forward to this year’s tournament. We have world, national and sports landscapes completely refigured. They’re twisted beyond recognition. But we better learn to recognize them because this is the new reality.
The NCAA and the pro leagues have moved forward with sports because of the money they bring in. A relative few players opted out. The games marched on.
So how am I supposed to feel about March Madness? How am I supposed to pick a bracket when the virus could eliminate a team?
I am without the normal unalloyed joy, but I will break out the brackets as usual. Hey, my team made the big dance!
This year’s Wichita State team has little resemblance to the previous team. Seven players left the program after last season and were replaced. Gregg Marshall, the storied Final Four coach, was forced out after credible allegation surfaced that he had struck a player and otherwise abused players and athletic department staff.
Virus protocols wiped out several Shocker games, leaving the team inactive for long stretches this year.
Yet after all that, the result was almost exactly the same. The team was on the bubble last year and probably headed for the NIT when everything was cancelled. This year’s team was also on the bubble, but happily on the correct side.
The tournament committee, after selecting the Shockers, did what it loves to do, make interesting matchups. In this case Wichita State will play Drake, a team from the Missouri Valley Conference, the league that Wichita State left in 2017.
I have seen odds favoring both teams. Drake deserved its bid more than Wichita State.
In fact, I was sure the Shockers would be left out. Their performance at the American Athletic Conference tournament was putrid. They beat bottom-feeder South Florida by one point then lost to a mediocre-at-best Cincinnati team.
Then in the tournament final, Houston beat Cincinnati by 37 points. I didn’t see a compelling reason for Wichita State to get a bid.
But I have not read any sports pontificators saying the Shockers don’t belong. They never hold back when they have an opinion. So I’m ready for tip-off Thursday!
The two teams played 132 times while both were in the Valley, with the Shockers winning 90 of those games. Wichita State leads the all-time series 103-46. The 149 games are the most Wichita State has played against any opponent.
Warning to those filling out brackets: This Shocker team is not that Shocker team.
The Fred VanVleet-Ron Baker-led Shocker teams were talented, mentally tough, unselfish, and always punched above their weight class. That group won nine NCAA games while at Wichita State. Their victims included Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana and Kansas.
The current team lacks that leader who can take over a game. A long run seems out of the question because they don’t rebound well. They often play without energy, not getting the most from their talent.
The Drake game is a tossup. I wouldn’t pick them on a bracket past that point.
But they are my Shockers win or lose. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out on You Tube, the video from when the team first learned on Sunday that it had made the big dance. That brought a tear to my eye and reminded me why we play these games in the first place.