A total of 333 days ago, Wichita State topped Ohio State, 70-66, in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight March 30. The Buckeyes, given the No. 2 seed after ripping through the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago and taking home the title, were halted by the No. 9-seeded Shockers for the duration of the game, trailing by 20 at multiple points before storming back behind 15 second half points from then-sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross to cut the lead to four.
But a second straight Final Four trip would not be realized by the Buckeyes, as the Shockers held on and advanced, only to lose to eventual national champion and top overall seed Louisville a week later.
The Shockers haven’t lost since.
Sitting unscathed at 30-0, No. 2 Wichita State is the lone remaining undefeated team in Division I college basketball this season.
The Buckeyes appear aware of that, too.
When asked about what he thought about this year’s version of the Shockers, senior guard Aaron Craft wasted no time responding.
“And we lost to them last year,” Craft said Friday, looking across the room.
Craft had an answer for the next question too, an inquiry into whether he and the rest of the now No. 22 Buckeyes knew how good Wichita State would be this season before everyone else did, simply because their season ended at the hands of the Shockers almost a calendar year ago.
“It’s not a moral victory if that’s what you’re hinting at,” Craft said with a grin. “It doesn’t feel any better that they beat us now that they’re having this success.”
But despite being unbeaten, the Shockers have not been given the nation’s top spot in the polls this season, likely because they play in a mid-major conference, The Missouri Valley Conference. But the Shockers’ success so far this season doesn’t surprise OSU’s coach either.
“I felt going into the game (last year) they were playing, just with what they had done through the tournament to (No. 1 seed) Gonzaga in the second round — they were rolling,” Matta said Friday. “And obviously they’ve done a great job of continuing that momentum going forward.”
Craft agreed, saying that even though the Shockers lost two of their three leading scorers after last season — senior guard Malcolm Armstead and senior forward Carl Hall, who scored 14 and eight points respectively against OSU in the Elite Eight — it’s clear why they’re playing well after beating the Buckeyes last year.
“It’s very easy to see why they’re successful. They play for each other, and they play for a cause — and that’s what it takes,” Craft said. “They’ve been down, they’ve found a way to fight back and that’s what they do. They have guys that are experienced and they have been in big games, have played in the Final Four. Wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Wichita State only has one game remaining on its regular season schedule — Saturday’s season finale when they are set to host Missouri State (19-10, 9-8) — so the odds of it finishing unbeaten are in their favor.
But with the way the college basketball landscape has been this season — especially in the Big Ten — with perennial powers losing close games to teams typically in the bottom half of the league, nothing surprises Matta anymore.
“I think that’s what it’s become. We use the word parity,” Matta said. “I think one of the biggest things, if you don’t have the star-studded one and done freshman class, the next greatest thing is probably fourth and fifth year guys that have been in the program, have been together. I think that’s where it kinds of lends itself to, the next phase of having a great run if you will.”
Wichita State has two juniors and four seniors on its current roster, while the Buckeyes have seven juniors and a pair of seniors in Craft and guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. Last season, the Shockers had five seniors and three juniors while OSU had one senior and five juniors. One of those juniors, forward Deshaun Thomas, left early for the NBA and two others were walk-ons.
Each team’s makeup this year, thought, hardly has anything to do with how it looked last year, Craft said.
“There’s very little carry over. Obviously you would think we’re probably different than people would have expected us to be based off of what happened last year and who we have coming back,” Craft said. “Every year is different, every team is different. You don’t look back and say ‘That was great. We did a good job last year.’ That doesn’t put the ball in the basket and that doesn’t stop anyone this year.”
Craft and the Buckeyes (22-6, 9-6) are slated to visit Penn State (13-14, 4-10) Thursday, looking to avenge a 71-70 overtime setback Jan. 29 and stay in the hunt for a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.
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