The people flocked to Carver Arena in Peoria, Ill., Tuesday for a basketball pilgrimage. It's not any old day that you get to see the No. 2-ranked team in college basketball come to town, and the hoops hotbed assembled for a chance to witness the mighty Wichita State Shockers in the flesh.
Many in attendance certainly came to support the home school Bradley Braves, clad in red and represented by its unsightly new mascot. But I suspect many others passed through the Carver turnstiles at the behest of college basketball history in the making, an historic team breaking ground on new history.
And for those Peoria hoops junkies, Wichita had to signify manna in a barren basketball desert. Perhaps the most fertile basketball town in America when it comes to churning out collegiate players, at least per capita or simply overall in the 1990s, Peoria is in a downturn. For the first time in decades, a Peoria area senior is not signed to play Division-I basketball. And the well-documented "Peoria Pipeline" to the University of Illinois dried up last year after the graduation of D.J. Richardson---the first time since the spring of 1993 that a Peoria player wasn't on the Illinois roster.
Collegiate basketball has been a dismal display, too, with no teams from the state of Illinois projected to make the NCAA Tournament field. In some sense, I think Peoria wanted to observe an echelon of the game that was entirely absent this season in the region. A 29-0 Wichita State fit the bill.
That's at least why I gathered my little brothers and bought three $8 tickets to catch the Shockers Tuesday night. I've been an unabashed Wichita State fan from afar after its Final Four run last year and have tracked its success all season.
Another aspect weighed on my mind leading up to tipoff; With a win, Wichita State would surpass the 2004-2005 Illinois team for the best regular season record ever and stand as the only team to have 30 wins and zero losses in the regular season.
Illinois was at 29-0 and had a commanding halftime lead in its last regular season game in 2005, until this happened.
Nine whole years have passed, and yet that footage still makes me queasy. In some respects, it stings as much as the 2005 National Championship loss because of the caliber of that UNC team and the total command Illinois had for most of the game against Ohio State.
That Illinois team deserved regular season perfection. It was team engineered and honed for it. I still can't believe it.
With that in mind, I knew I wanted no such fate for this Wichita State team. Like Illinois that year, Wichita State is a testament to a group of teammates that buy into a system, execute it, have great success and then return the next season to win the whole damn thing. In the current college basketball landscape, these teams are exceedingly rare. But their presence should be celebrated and followed because those are the teams that play the best brand of basketball.
Wichita State isn't as explosive offensively as that Illini team, nor does it possess the ebullient personality of those Illini. But Wichita's aura as they surgically dismantle opponents is familiar. The passing is crisp, their spacing impeccable, and the team defense impenetrable. All of the starters have a depth of skill at their position that allows them to pass, drive, shoot, and leave the other team guessing which they might choose. Wichita State head coach Greg Marshall has them prepared for any situation, however dire, much like Illinois when it came back against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Arizona in 2005. The comeback against Missouri State was spectacular and screamed of those Illini's allergy to panic or doubt.
I had no great epiphanies watching Wichita State Tuesday, except a confirmation of its skill and my general affinity to the team. The Shockers stomped on Bradley and won 69-49 with ease. I don't know how far they'll go, but it's hard for me to imagine any outcome other than a return to the Final Four.
More than anything, the 30-0 record has been an opportunity to remember that magical Illinois squad. The team popped up on the ESPN scroll over the weekend and more than a few articles mentioned them with glowing recollections of that season. The nation was entranced by Illinois that season, and my constant fear is that team will fade one day from the collective basketball consciousness without a championship attached to its name.
"What a shame," I always fear.
My secret hope is that this Wichita State team goes far, past an undefeated regular season, past a Missouri Valley Conference Championship, past the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four. The great teams, the ones that stave off losses the whole season, deserve a championship to preserve their moment. A bad shooting day in the Round of 32 might ruin this ideal, and so be it if it comes to pass.
Wichita State cut down the nets for the regular season MVC title with little fanfare. "We didn't even talk about this goal because the whole thing has been on next game, next game," Marshall said this week.
That's a team with one singular, ambitious goal in mind. Certain nets are more important to cut down for most teams. Illinois didn't cut down the one they deserved in 2005. The Shockers might in 2014. Why? Like Jay Bilas proclaimed in a frenzied Rosemont Arena as Illinois waged a comeback for the ages against Arizona, sometimes it's the heart of a champion.