You don't know them.
Not many people do.
Days… Weeks… Months… Almost a year has gone by and still… you don't know them.
The legendary Robert Montgomery Knight, aka, The General, one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, strolls in to inspect the troops. He came to see them, to share his wisdom before they march into madness… to see who exactly this rag-tag bunch of players, not blue bloods… scrappers… fighters… winners, were.
Coach Knight, the leader of the last college team to go undefeated and win an NCAA title, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, shows up at practice in late February to tell them to take it "one game at a time".
He is a fan of how they play. "Play Angry". The 2013-2014 Wichita State men's basketball team does just that. But more importantly, plays hard, plays tough and plays together, leading to an NCAA-record 30-0 regular season mark under head coach Gregg Marshall.
Saturday, March 1, 2014: Charles Koch Arena, Wichita, Kansas:
Senior Night. The final matchup before the conference tourney and the opponent Missouri State is no easy out for the Shockers.
This is also the final home game for two Canadian senior forwards, Chadrack Lufile, as well as his best friend, a young man whose last name is famous, not only in the state of Kansas, but on a couple continents, Nick Wiggins.
Nick has a younger brother, Andrew who you may know, playing in the same state only two and half hours away, for a program so steeped in tradition, the inventor of basketball was the first head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, fellow Canuck James Naismith.
I got on the phone with Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile post-practice this week to talk life in the shadows and possibly shocking the world.
Did you guys know one another before signing at Wichita State?
NW: We've known one another since we were teenagers.
CL: We actually went to the same junior college together at Vincennes in Indiana.
NW: I signed first. I didn't force him to sign or anything… just told him it would be special for us to go together.
Why Wichita State?
CL: Nick had narrowed his choices down to Baylor and Wichita State. He talked about his visit, how they treated him, the ambitions of the coaches and players. There was just a feeling; a good feeling about it all. Once Nick decided, I was in, too. We had to take advantage of what looked like a great opportunity in front of us.
NW: When we first got here, first couple years, we didn't play as much as we'd have liked to but it was always about team. Still, it was tough at times, knowing you could help the team on the court more.
CL: My Dad's a minister. He has a huge influence on all that I do. Once, we'd lost three straight, neither one of us was playing a lot and my Dad prayed for us. Not just us, but the team. I remember telling Nick about it.
NW: Yeah, I mean we had 7-8 guys on this team last year who could score 20 in any game, but we share the ball. That's how play.
CL: And then we ended up in the Final Four. We believed...
If you had to compare your game to any Wichita State great from the past, who would it be and why?
NW: So many great players who have come through here. I'd say Cleo Littleton. He was known for his defence and for being a great teammate. I think that's me.
CL: X! Xavier McDaniel. He and Antoine Carr, another Shockers legend, came in to to see us last year and really instilled in us to "Play Angry". That's our thing now: Play Angry. He (McDaniel) told me to box out hard, never let anyone get to the ball before I did, rebound strong, run the floor harder than my opponent, be versatile with my game. We emulate the guys who were here before us. They are Shockers for life!
What do you say to the pundits who believe 30-0 is a function of you guys playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, the perceived lack in your strength of schedule and not because you're a great team?
NW: Schedule us. Everyone talks KU (Kansas), but they wouldn't play us. We wanted to do it at a neutral site, but they didn't want it. That's ok, people who don't believe mid-majors can compete with major D-1 schools haven't really watched us play. They will find out soon enough.
CL: Say what you want about our conference or the teams we beat. Just come play us. We feel like we can compete with anyone. We beat the #1 team in the country in Gonzaga in the tournament last year. Ohio State was #7, Pitt #20. Just play us.
Do you think you should be ranked #1 in the country?
CL: Honestly, I think we should be!
NW: We don't really pay it much attention. It could be almost like a distraction. We don't look past anyone. You still gotta win. The team we play our last home game against, Missouri State, is tough. They had us down by like 17 with about 11 minutes to go in the game before we fought back and won. It was a war. I'm sure they won't care that it's Senior Night for us when we play them again. They wanna win, too!
If Wichita State runs the table by winning your conference tourney, should you be a #1 seed for March Madness?
NW: We proved all year we should be a #1 seed. I think the selection committee will do the right thing and give us that. We lost some great guys from last year's team and still haven't skipped a beat or lost a step. Coach Marshall has us prepared. This will be a special ride to go on with this group of guys.
Dream Scenario: Clearly winning it all is the ultimate dream. But, if Wichita State had a chance to play Kansas in the final on April 7 in Dallas, why would it be that much sweeter?
CL: Let's Go!!! Do you know how hype that would be?!?
NW: If they seed us and Kansas in the same region 1-2, wow, the rivalry... My brother. I believe it'll happen. State bragging rights. Man, I would have lifetime bragging rights in my house (laughs)!!!
CL: Andrew (Wiggins) would come down to chill and hang with us. I'd tell him "You're not ready for us, Bro (laughs)!" I'm no genius or anything, but I believe all of this. All the things that are happening with Wichita State are meant to be.
I feel like we'll meet Kansas, God Willing.
And God Is Good...