It ain’t easy being Wichita.
For instance, it’s the biggest city in Kansas, yet Google Maps once hid it behind a highway sign. If you asked the world’s largest search engine for a map of the Sunflower State, the preferred result once pinpointed such cities as Topeka and Salina, along with hamlets the likes of Newton and Pratt. But there was no Wichita. (Hint: it’s just west of Augusta, under the dingbat for I-35.)
Worse, to my knowledge, no one has ever been interested enough in Wichita to point out this error before.
Wichita is halfway between a couple of slightly more famous places (Kansas City and Oklahoma City) that are themselves halfway between two truly famous locales (New York and Los Angeles). It’s one of the great aircraft manufacturing hubs of the world, but the outside world hardly ever asks about aviation pioneers like Clyde Cessna and Bill Lear. Instead, folks want to talk about Dorothy Gale and her little dog, Toto, who together flew a farmhouse to Oz.
So it was hardly unexpected when the Wichita State Shockers, the winningest team in major college basketball, were dissed after claiming the Missouri Valley Conference title in St. Louis on Sunday. They had just barreled over Indiana State for their 34th victory against zero losses—yes, zero—but the t-shirts they were handed by conference officials had Indiana State identified as champions.
Typo, or typical?
They get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield used to say, no respect at all. Were they the surprise of last year’s tournament, toting a No. 9 seeding into the Final Four? Yes. Did they overcome injuries this season to mesh as a well-balanced, hard-hustling machine? Yes. Has any major college team ever taken a better record into the NCAA tournament than the Shockers’ 34-0? No.
But the team has been dogged all year by complaints about its supposedly hayseed pedigree. Though Wichita State is the only team other than the mighty Florida Gators to rank in the top ten nationally at both ends of the court, fans of teams like Villanova, Arizona, Duke and Syracuse argue that the Shockers play an easy schedule against second-and third-tier schools. As Andy Hutchins of SB Nation puts it: “Should the Shockers slip” in the tournament, “fans of every team on a beaten path or in a power conference [are] waiting to smirk and say ‘I told you so’ or ‘I knew they couldn't hang.’ “
Personally, I think the haters will be outnumbered come tournament time. Americans love a Cinderella story, even if they can’t find Cinderella’s hometown on a map. Wichita State going 40-0 to win the national title would be a classic.
What’s more, it would grant a delirious hour in the national spotlight to a school that has been known too long for tragedy. Among sports fans of a certain age, the story is indelible.
On October 2, 1970, an airplane carrying members of the Wichita State football team flew into the side of a mountain in Colorado. Thirty passengers and crew members died, including some who likely were trapped alive as the plane burned. The horror was compounded by the discovery that none of it had to happen [pdf]. A careless pilot, showing off for the passengers, flew a ground-hugging route into the steeply rising Colorado Rockies. It was 1 p.m. on a crystal clear day, but by the time he realized his mistake, he was out of room to climb or turn around.
So sad. So wasteful.
So what are the chances? When it comes to March Madness these days, every team is an underdog. Nearly 40 years have passed since a team entered the tournament with a perfect record and went on to win the title. (Indiana did it in 1976.) Wichita State will have to beat some teams that are better than any the Shockers have faced this year.
But they have something rare in today’s college basketball ranks: a real team. In an age where the best players often skip to the pros after a single college season—think Andrew Wiggins of this year’s Kansas Jayhawks, the glamor team from two hours up the road—the Wichita State’s squad includes a half-dozen key players back from last year’s Final Four team.
Those guys knocked off a No. 1 seed (Gonzaga) and a No. 2 (Ohio State) before falling to Louisville. And they haven’t lost since. Surely that’s worthy of a little respect.
Updated, March 11: Wichita is now properly labeled on Google's map. The original piece has been changed to reflect Wichita's new-found prominence.