ST. LOUIS, MO – It missed.
Maybe if it had happened in any other game, it wouldn’t have felt like it did when Fred Van Vleet’s shot bounced off the rim and backboard and away. Maybe it would have just felt like it was time for the run to come to the end. But not Sunday.
Not against Kentucky, a team that had been up and down all year. Not against Kentucky, a team that thought they would go undefeated this season. Not against Kentucky, not when the Shockers played as well as they have all season.
But it missed.
The only comment that made sense was “Ugh”: it was a punch in the gut after watching this team like a hawk for more than half the season. It didn’t feel right.
This team was not supposed to lose.
Basketball is a fickle game though. The best team doesn’t always win, the same as with any other sport. The best team sometimes gets beat by a team that had to play perfectly in order to come out on top. That is what Kentucky did Sunday. That is why there will be an “and 1” attached to the Shockers record.
It has been 15 years since I first put my hands on the keyboard to write about college basketball. In that time, I have seen Florida repeat. I have seen multiple teams from Duke, and UNC, and Kentucky win the title. I have seen UConn, and Louisville, and Michigan State take home the trophy.
There hasn’t been another team I felt was perfect until this year. This team changed that.
Despite all the hype and criticism thrown in their direction, the Shockers just shrugged it off. Everyone wanted them to act bigger than themselves; they all wanted a crack in the armor.
But not this team, not this group of players. They had a mission and each night, it didn’t matter who had to step up to accomplish it. They just wanted this more than every team that took the floor with them.
Sunday afternoon, they finally met a team that wanted it … well, not more. I am not sure any team could have wanted anything more than Wichita State. Kentucky maybe matched the amount of want on the Shocker bench Sunday.
Both teams played as if the trophy was going to be handed out at the end of the game, and they were just going to call off the rest of the NCAA Tournament. That is how good that game was.
That is why it hurt so much to have it end that way. That shot was supposed to go in. This run should have — no, needed to keep going.
I have no reason for feeling this way. I didn’t go to Wichita State. I didn’t go to a Missouri Valley school. I am not related to any of the players.
And yet, something about this team made it possible to root for them while trying to remain impartial as much as possible. We stayed away from overtly defending them on the site. We didn’t fight back against the criticism of the team. They did the talking themselves on the court.
But we watched, and watched, and as they wanted us to do, we watched. Whether it was the little things that they did each game, or the way they would just make it so suffocating for the other team every night, they made you appreciate what really good basketball looks like.
Everyone associated with this program should be proud of what they accomplished this season. No one will forget this team. People might even forget who wins the NCAA Championship this season before they forget how Wichita State went 35-0 before it all ending in one of the greatest games in NCAA Tournament history.
I think the thing that hurts the most is that this team made you want to watch basketball. I have never looked at the schedule for the next game with as much anticipation as I did this season. And now that they are gone, it is like basketball loses some of the meaning that they gave to it.
This team will be back again next season, but it won’t be the same. Trying to recreate this perfect mix of players and coach, it can’t be done. They will be good; they may even win the Missouri Valley again and give us one of those NCAA Tournament runs that should have come this year.
But it won’t be this team, this perfect team, the one that we will remember as perfect despite the “and one” at the end of the record.
Good night, Wichita. It has been a great run. Thank you.