For just a few teams, four to be exact, the season has not yet ended. But for me, the squeak of shoes on the court at Koch Arena has faded, the home/away schedule has been taken off the refrigerator, and the courtship of Coach Marshall by bigger, richer programs has begun. Shocker hoops season is officially closed.
I liken the end of the season to the day after Christmas. You are exhausted, but still euphoric from the time spent with family, friends, the parties, and the unexpected gifts but, you are also heavy with sadness, something you cannot quite shake, because it ended much too quickly. Just like that, it seems, it’s over. And now you have to wait a very long time to feel the anticipation, the excitement, and the delirious joy that comes with the season. You carefully tuck away the foam finger and the WuShock wig in the closet under the stairs, nestle numerous strands of yellow and black beads in your top dresser drawer along with leftover face tattoos and ticket stubs you were too superstitious to throw away, and with a tear in your eye, (which you explain to the neighbor was caused by those stinking, blooming Bradford pear trees), take down the gold and black flags that have flapped their loyalty through wind, rain, sleet and snow.
There is one saving grace which makes the end of basketball season easier to endure and that is the wearing of ones colors throughout the year. While you’d probably be ridiculed for wearing a red t-shirt of Santa’s jolly face in the middle of June, no one will blink if you wear your team colors every day of the week until November. If I had to stash away all of my Shocker gear until next season, fold it all neatly into black and yellow tubs and store them in the attic or basement, I’d lose my mind. Plus, we’d probably have to rent out a storage unit. I know wearing my Wu Shocked the Rock Chalk t-shirt in August will not only help me get through the hot summer days, it will bring to mind another incredible Shocker season.
Coming into the 2014-2015 season, we knew expectations would again be high, but we also knew we had a different team on the floor with many new, young faces. While we still had Van Vleet, Baker, Cotton, Wessel, and Carter, the thought of an inexperienced bench made everyone a little nervous, even my dad. The inconsistency of the bench and the obvious lack of trust in the bench from our veterans forced a few nail biters, but overall, they persevered and a few of those fresh faces emerged as our future stars. Shocker Nation, spoiled now by seasons of winning, grew restless after one loss, then critical after two. Personally, I figured this to be a five, possibly six-loss season, and was proud of our team for only one loss in conference play and a total of three losses during the entire season prior to the two tournament losses. So, let’s talk about those unexpected gifts.
Sure, having a starting five of Fred, Ron, Tekele, Evan and Darius is a gift in itself, but the emergence of our freshmen was the first gift under the black and gold tree. By the end of the season, Morris, Brown, and Bush had made their presence known and stepped up during some of the biggest games of the season.
The second? On February 28th, a date forever marked on the calendar as one of the biggest days in Shocker basketball history, the Shockers were crowned the season MVC Champs, back to back champions for the first time in 50 years. And, while the game against Northern Iowa was already significant with the winner the outright champ, ESPN’s College Game Day came to town to witness firsthand the electricity of Shocker Nation. Not even a late season snow storm would stop us from showing Bilas and the boys just what Wichita and Wichita State were made of. The energy from that morning spilled over into the game, igniting an already determined Shocker team to handily beat the Panthers. It was probably the loudest I have ever heard the fans in Koch Arena. Absolute delirium. I guess you could say this was one of those three-in-one gifts, where you have to open all three back-to-back-to-back to take in the full measure of just how awesome a gift you’ve just received.
Any other season that three-in-one would have been the grand finale gift, but not this year. Despite losing to Illinois State in the MVC tournament, which was disappointing but not life-ending, the Shockers were invited to the Big Dance for the fourth year in a row, a school record. And for the second year in a row, they had a tough road ahead of them to reach the Final Four: Indiana, Kansas, Notre Dame, and Kentucky. But, the only game able to distract all fans from the thought of a rematch against Kentucky was the possibility of finally playing Kansas. Yes, KU. The wait was over. No longer would Coach Self be able to ignore the media and fans and their constant badgering of why the Jayhawks would not schedule a game against the Shockers. For Shocker Nation, it was well worth the wait. Jim Rome described the outcome as “Kansas getting their nose broken by their so-called little brother,” but I see WSU and KU more like cousins. One, a working class kid with a chip on his shoulder and the other, a wealthy kid who knows he’ll get everything on his Christmas list. One kid works hard for everything he has earned. The other kid expects it and takes it for granted. This explains a lot of the bitterness following the game.
When the buzzer sounded and Wichita State was crowned the new “Kings of Kansas,” it was unknown territory for Jayhawk fans. When you are used to being on top, when you are hailed as a blue blood program, and you have numerous conference championships and a handful of National Championships, it hurts to be thought of as “second” in your home state, if even for a moment. But, for Shocker Nation, this may have been the biggest gift of the season. I don’t expect Jayhawk fans to truly understand or comprehend what this game meant to us, especially for fans like my father who’ve wanted to see a series between WSU, KU and K-State for years. And, as a true basketball fan, my father supports both programs of Kansas and Kansas State, but his heart and history belongs to WSU. The look on his face after the game was reminiscence of when we attended the Final Four in 2013. Sheer joy.
Many referred to this game as our Super Bowl, and maybe it was, which would explain why the Shockers just didn’t seem to have the energy to keep up with Notre Dame. They’d given everything they had on the court to ensure Shocker Nation was able to bask in a win against the blue and crimson team from Lawrence. Icing on the cake was a trip to the Sweet 16. Beating the University of Kansas for a trip to the Sweet 16 was like waking up on Christmas to find a black and yellow tandem Schwinn bicycle or Harley Davidson Sportster, depending on your preference of two-wheeled transportation, next to the tree.
Overall, it’s been a wonderful Christmas basketball season. The anticipation was immense, there were a lot of great parties and quality time spent with family and friends, and the gifts were bigger and better than were initially scribbled in letters to Santa WuShock. With that in mind, I will exercise great patience in waiting for November and enjoy the summer dreaming of another black and gold basketball season and many more unexpected gifts.