OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Wichita State should know how to avoid distractions by now.
When the NCAA Tournament field was first set, all anybody wanted to talk about was the Shockers finally getting a shot at Kansas. Nobody wanted to mention that they first had to take care of Indiana just to give the game a chance of happening.
It came to pass, of course. And behind a stellar effort on both ends of the floor, the No. 7 seed Shockers beat the Jayhawks 78-65 on Sunday night, advancing to the Sweet 16.
Now, all anybody will talk about is a potential rematch with overall No. 1 seed Kentucky, the same team that ruined the Shockers’ perfect season in the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Except Wichita State first has to beat No. 3 seed Notre Dame.
“We’re going to approach it the same way we did this time,” Shockers star Fred VanVleet told The Associated Press. “We’ll let y’all do all the looking ahead, anticipating.”
Don’t worry. There will be no shortage of it.
The Shockers (30-4) have played enough win-or-go-home games that they should be immune to looking ahead, though. VanVleet and fellow backcourt mates Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton were part of the team that advanced to the Final Four two years ago, beating No. 1 seed Gonzaga and second-seed Ohio State before falling to eventual national champion Louisville.
So even in the moments after an emotional victory over Kansas, a school that has refused to play the Shockers for years, VanVleet was already able to focus on the Fighting Irish.
“Listen, Notre Dame is a heck of a team,” he said of the ACC Tournament champs. “We don’t have time to overlook anybody. That’s what teams do with us. We know how it feels.”
The Shockers beat the Jayhawks with the same formula that has carried them to so many wins under coach Gregg Marshall: They fought for every rebound, they pestered the Kansas guards in the half-court, and they executed flawlessly whenever they had the ball.
VanVleet had 17 points and six assists. Cotton poured in 19 points. Baker had 12 points without a turnover in 37 minutes. Even unheralded guard Evan Wessel drained four 3-pointers and had 12 points to go with nine rebounds against the bigger, longer Jayhawks.
“We knew we could heat ’em up after free throws and a couple of dead balls, like we do most teams,” Baker said. “We just got our pressure into the game, kind of slowed them up.”
Kansas led by eight in the first half, but a 13-2 charge into the locker room had given the Shockers the lead. They never relinquished it in the final 20 minutes, giving their fans bragging rights over a school that had not played them since 1993.
“It’s definitely one of the biggest wins I’ve been a part of. Definitely hits home, being a Wichita kid, growing up a Wichita State fan,” Wessel said. “My family went to Wichita State. It’s big for the community, and I’m just glad we got the win and we can move on.”
The Shockers headed home after their game Sunday, but they won’t have a whole lot of time to rest. Their matchup against Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional is Thursday night.
“Our coaches are already scouting them,” freshman forward Shaq Morris said. “We didn’t see them all year. Now that this game is over, that’s what we’re focused on.”
Likewise, the Fighting Irish will surely be focusing on Wichita State.
Even with the blue bloods from the Bluegrass State potentially looming, Notre Dame first must beat a program that has won at least 30 games three straight years, that started 35-0 last season and is headed to another Sweet 16 with many of the same players.
“It kind of sinks it,” Marshall said. “You’re one of the top 16 teams in the country at this point, with only an upside. That’s the basement.”
The next couple of weeks will determine the ceiling.
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