With its loss to Florida in the Sweet 16, Florida Gulf Coast Awareness Week officially ended, making way for a university that more people have certainly heard of, if only because it calls its sports teams the Shockers.
Welcome to Wichita State Awareness Week.
The Shockers join George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler in the exclusive group of mid-major Final Four crashers in the 21st century, membership that, for better or worse, raises the national profiles of not only those basketball programs, but also the universities as a whole. After George Mason’s run from nowhere to the Final Four in 2006, Robert Baker, director of the university’s Center for Sport Management, conducted a study that “examined the economic and social impacts of the Final Four appearance across the university.” Examples of the impact? Admissions inquiries increased by 350 percent, and freshman applications increased 22 percent, among other things.
It’s not only perception of the public at-large; it changes a program’s perception of itself moving forward.
“It’s going to help our program a lot internally as much as externally,” La Salle coach John Giannini said of his team’s NCAA tournament run, which was ended in the regional semifinals by Wichita State.
“… When you look in our conference at Butler, for example. Those players expect to be good defensively. They expect to do tough things. They expect to win games. They expect to make it to the postseason. Those teams are hard to play against. I think now we’re taking a step to becoming that kind of program. Externally, I think it certainly helps recruiting. It’s all positive. I don’t think there’s any drawbacks.”
A Big Five Philadelphia program making its first tournament appearance in 20 years and advancing to the Sweet 16 is one thing. A Wichita, Kan., program making its first Final Four since 1965 is another.
Rather quietly, Wichita State managed to put together a team as good or better than those other recent Final Four crashers, amazingly doing it despite replacing its top five scorers from last year’s fifth-seeded team that lost to VCU in its tournament opener.
|TABLE 2||Year||PPP Off||PPP Def||KP Off||KP Def||MOV||Avg Seed|
TABLE 1 shows the final rankings of each team in the AP poll, KenPom.com’s ratings and the RPI, while TABLE 2 shows points per possession on offense and defense, KenPom.com’s offense and defense rankings, average margin of victory of tournament wins leading up to the Final Four and average seed of those opponents.
None of those four teams won the championship, as George Mason lost to Florida by 15 and VCU lost to Butler by eight in the semifinals, while Butler lost in back-to-back championship games — coming so close to one of the most dramatic wins in sports history against Duke, and losing one of the most unwatchable championship games in sports history against UConn.
But since those Final Fours, each has moved on to a bigger conference, including Butler equaling its Final Four appearances with two conference moves: VCU and Butler both joined the Atlantic-10 this season, and Butler will jump again by joining the Catholic Seven in the new Big East next season. That latest move opened the door for George Mason to follow VCU from the Colonial Athletic Association to the A-10.
That’s not to say Wichita State is next on anyone’s list of conference expansion targets, but the impact on the school is undeniable.
Perhaps it’s a bad sign of the times that a university’s perception can be improved so much by the prominence of its sports teams, but it’s undoubtedly true, which is part of the reason why athletic departments have spent exponentially more time, money and energy in arms races, bringing in people to BUILD THE BRAND, not only to help recruit better athletes, but also to recruit more fans/donors and give them more national cachet.
This week is certainly the most people have heard Wichita State’s name in years, and maybe it’s partially a product of luck that the Shockers ended up in the West region. Had they been stuck in the East (Louisville, Duke) or South (Michigan, Florida, Kansas), we likely would not be talking about them right now — instead coach Gregg Marshall might be interviewing for others jobs — but they took advantage of a weaker West, beat a couple highly regarded teams, including No. 1 Gonzaga, and did what they had to do to put themselves squarely in the national consciousness.
A 68-team bracket is one of the most perfect things in sports: a three-week single-elimination tournament in which there are no disputes. One winner, 67 losers. But it’s also incredibly imperfect in terms of, well, everything else, from unbalanced seeding and regions to one bad game potentially nullifying a great 35-game season … and on and on and on.
So Wichita State took advantage of that imperfection. And even if they go to Atlanta and get blasted out of the Georgia Dome by Louisville on Saturday night, they’re no longer just the team that calls itself the Shockers and features a wheat mascot named WuShock. They own, according to the bracket, one of the four best basketball teams in America, and we are talking about them.