From the outside, every team in the Missouri Valley is an underdog. When Gregg Marshall claims he wants to stay at Wichita State, for example, the national media simply cannot comprehend his thought process. Surely, every coach in college basketball would jump at a chance to leave a conference under the Red Line, especially for an increased salary.
To ESPN, CBS and the rest of the networks, Wichita State is just a nice, cuddly mid-major with a lot to offer but ultimately not enough to stay on par with a power conference. So when it plays Illinois State during a semi-final matchup, the two teams seem like carbon copies of each other. Just a couple of darling little guys from a league in the middle of nowhere.
But to us, in Our Game, these two teams could not possibly be any different.
On one side, there's the Shockers: the kings of the Missouri Valley in 2011-12 after winning the regular-season title. They have erupted lately, dismantling every opponent in sight on their way to an appearance in the top-25. They play their home games at the historic Koch Arena, a hopping, electric atmosphere that has intimidated every opponent that's ever walked into the building. College basketball is a way of life for these people, some of whom saw that Final Four team play in 1965. This is a program that prides itself on a winning tradition, and Gregg Marshall's team is no different. They are fast. Strong. Tough. They look like Olympic athletes on the floor, racing their way from end to end and disrupting opposing offenses with their superior athleticism. They start a seven-footer who leads the team in scoring. They bring another seven-footer off the bench.
On the other side, there's the Redbirds. The program that has never won more than one NCAA Tournament game in any given season, a team that hasn't made the NCAAs since 1998. They are coached by a man who played at Kansas State and used to coach under Bill Self, but he has entered a different world at Illinois State. He has recruited several high-flying athletes during his tenure, and Tim Jankovich has a fun, young group in 2012, but his team isn't on par with mighty Wichita State. His team doesn't even have a senior on it, so why should it have any shot against the Shockers? Jankovich said so himself after his team beat Northern Iowa -- he said it's not even fair to play Wichita State.
And really, it's not. Not with the talent level and experience the Shockers wield, not to mention the enormous fan base they bring from Wichita.
Funny things happen in sports, though. You know where this story is going. Illinois State battles and battles, even when it falls behind early in the first half. It hangs around early in the second half, and then, it strikes. I won't bore you with the details of the game. Just that the team nobody thought had any chance just never went away.
By the time Wichita State realized it might actually lose, two seniors had a chance to win the game in the final seconds. Garrett Stutz, that seven-foot starting center, misses a shot at the buzzer that could have helped his team survive to advance to the title game. Instead, it heads home and the upstart Redbirds have a chance to become the Cinderella.
Outside of Our Game, this upset doesn't exactly register with the common folk. Sure, it's impressive an unranked team beat Wichita State, but big whoop. One little guy beats another little guy. A blip on the SportsCenter BottomLine.
In Our Game, the story is different. As you watch the Illinois State team race to its locker room after shaking hands, you see the pure glee in the players' faces. After the game, you see Tim Jankovich as proud as can be for a team that supposedly had no chance at victory. You can see how upset Marshall and his players are for once again falling short of their goal of an MVC tournament title.
That's why even Under the Red Line, upsets can happen. They can be just as glorious and rewarding, too.
ILLINOIS STATE 65, WICHITA STATE 64 03/03/2012
ILLINOIS STATE 20-12 (9-9) -- N. Moore 3-7 4-4 12; T. Brown 9-19 4-4 25; J. Ekey 1-8 0-0 3; J. Carmichael 4-10 4-4 12; B. Allen 1-6 2-2 4; J. Wilkins 1-5 5-6 8; A. Cousin 0-1 1-2 1; D. Clark 0-0 0-0 0; J. Hill 0-0 0-0 0; Z. Upshaw 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-56 20-22 65. WICHITA STATE 27-5 (16-2) -- B. Smith 4-15 4-5 14; T. Murry 6-15 3-4 15; J. Ragland 5-9 3-4 17; D. Williams 0-2 0-0 0; D. Kyles 1-8 2-2 5; G. Stutz 3-7 0-0 6; C. Hall 0-1 0-0 0; J. White 3-5 1-2 7; T. Cotton 0-1 0-0 0; E. Orukpe 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-63 13-17 64.
Three-point goals: ILST 7-21 (J. Carmichael 0-1; J. Ekey 1-6; B. Allen 0-2; A. Cousin 0-1; J. Wilkins 1-2; T. Brown 3-7; N. Moore 2-2), WICH 7-23 (T. Murry 0-2; D. Kyles 1-6; D. Williams 0-2; J. Ragland 4-4; B. Smith 2-8; T. Cotton 0-1); Rebounds: ILST 34 (J. Carmichael 11), WICH 40 (B. Smith 13); Assists: ILST 6 (N. Moore 3), WICH 6 (T. Murry 2); Total Fouls -- ILST 16, WICH 21; Fouled Out: ILST-None; WICH-None.