LOS ANGELES – Wichita State and La Salle busted a few brackets with their early wins in the NCAA tournament. Now they’re in the final 16 and playing a short drive from Hollywood. Just don’t script their matchup as a meeting of underdogs.
These guys think they’ve got a lot of credibility, even if large chunks of the country didn’t pay them any attention until now.
“The beautiful thing about the NCAA tournament is to see great teams that you don’t see every night and to see different players that you might see some day at the next level,” La Salle coach John Giannini said.
The ninth-seeded Shockers (28-8) and No. 13 Explorers (24-9) meet in the second West Regional semifinal Thursday night at Staples Center, where Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Blake Griffin of the Clippers can usually be found changing outcomes with last-second jumpers or highlight-reel dunks.
Ramon Galloway of La Salle couldn’t resist creating some of his own NBA-style moves at the end of Wednesday’s open practice. The senior guard, one of four Philadelphia-bred players on the team, showed off what he called “dunk-contest dunks.”
“When the game time comes, if I can get a fast break, hopefully I can show the world what I can do,” he said.
The Explorers and the Shockers have proud pasts in the tournament; they occurred just long enough ago to have fallen off the current radar. La Salle was the 1954 national champion; Wichita State made the 1965 Final Four.
“We’re not rags to riches,” said Giannini, whose Ph.D. in kinesiology earned him the title of Dr. in front of his name. “Maybe people are surprised we’ve won three in a row. But we’ve beaten good teams all year.”
And the Explorers will have to beat another one to continue their tournament road trip that began 2,754 miles ago in Dayton, Ohio, where they won a play-in game against Boise State to get into the NCAAs. Then they took out Kansas State and Mississippi by a combined four points in Kansas City, and haven’t been back to Philly since.
“If we would have gone home, we might have lost focus just enough to slip up a little bit,” guard Tyreek Duren said.
Indeed, their city has embraced the team. The 76ers posted a good luck message for the Explorers on the video board at Wednesday night’s game that was greeted with an ovation.
“We didn’t have that support all year,” Galloway said. “When you do stuff and people get to see you, then they actually praise you. I’m just glad that we’ve got the opportunity to play on national television, in front of everybody, so everybody can see what La Salle stands for.”
The Shockers did return home after their upset of No. 1 seed Gonzaga last weekend.
“The community was very excited, but it was just a regular basketball game for us,” guard Malcolm Armstead said. “It proved a lot to the country and also to ourselves, but it was just something that we had to do.”
La Salle plays in front of a few thousand at its home games; Wichita State draws more than 10,000. The Shockers travel by private plane to their away games and coach Gregg Marshall hops one on recruiting trips.
“Instead of a school bus, they’re more like Ferraris and Jaguars,” he said. “They go pretty fast.”
In between coaching his team, Marshall is practically moonlighting for the chamber of commerce “spreading the good word about Wichita and Wichita State University,” as he put it.
“We’ve had our share of great basketball,” he said, ticking off famous players like Dave Stallworth, Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr. “It’s all coming together for us again.”
No more so than for Ron Baker, a freshman guard whose 16 points, including four 3-pointers, helped the Shockers beat Gonzaga. He returned for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament after missing 21 games with a left foot injury.
“I’ve said many times if Ron Baker were a stock, you better get in now,” Marshall said.
La Salle will get some size back and rebounding help when 6-foot-11 center Steve Zack returns Thursday after missing the previous six games with a sprained foot.
“He can play if he feels well enough and we put him in there,” Giannini said, “so that dramatically changes things.”
Only one of these smaller schools gets to move on to a stage usually dominated by the bigger schools, and Galloway isn’t sure why the matchup needs sizzle to sell.
“We’re basically two of the same teams. We’re both going to go out there and play hard,” he said. “They’ve gotten great wins to get here. We got great wins to get here. If you look at our track record that should speak for itself. We’re in the Sweet Sixteen. You’ve got to watch everything.”