This was not the team that you would have expected to be playing on Saturday afternoon in early April when the season started. Not this Wichita State team, a team that lost 80 percent of its starters from last year, a team that was going to count on transfers and freshman for significant minutes.
Before this season started, it was easy to have doubts about the Shockers because of all that.
The only player returning who produced a positive value last season according to HOOPWAR was Carl Hall. But there was no telling the improvements that he would make on both the defensive and offensive ends.
There was no telling that he would become this block machine inside, or that he would dominate the scoring for the Shockers in the way that he has. Maybe the potential was there, but playing alongside Garrett Stutz and Ben Smith last season, it wasn't this Hall. He finished with a 1.27 HW30 last year, and as a rising senior, even one that would get more minutes, there was not telling that he would improve to almost a 5.0 win player.
Everyone else that returned was a role player, not looking to become a major part of the team. And that would be why all of the major contributors this year -- the ones who returned positive value -- are either freshman (redshirt and otherwise) or transfers (Division 1 or other parts).
The only player coming back that made a major stride this year was Tekele Cotton, who turned from a below average defender into one of the best on the Shockers. He also started to play some offense for this team.
But this returning core, it was what led us to believe that a ranking of No. 86 in the country was the right spot for the Shockers at the beginning of the year. Ken Pomeroy's initial rankings started with the team higher. Dan Hanner had them in the 100s. There was no telling what this team would achieve.
Even in your wildest imagination, there could be no way to have seen this coming, that this team would be the one that would be on the verge of making the Championship game. We thought that there might be a mid-major in the Final Four this season. That would have been Davidson, the team that was returning almost all of its production from last year. But the Wildcats were inconsistent, and ended up seeing that inconsistency kill them in the final minutes against Marquette.
West Coast fans probably had visions of Gonzaga finally making it here. Wichita State saw that that wouldn't happen (and the fact that the universe just doesn't want the Bulldogs to ever succeed again apparently). Soon we will need a saying like "That's so Gonzaga" for how they end up performing so often.
No, this team was not the sexy pick.
This is the team that made it though, and will be dangerous even for that overall No. 1 seed on the opposing bench, Louisville.
The additions of Malcolm Armstead -- a castoff from Oregon who knows what it means to compete against top competition -- and Cleanthony Early, a JUCO All-American who emergence was a big question mark when stepping into the Missouri Valley (he did fine, pulling up at No. 2 on the team with a 4.3 HW30 on the year), were huge for the Shockers.
Ron Baker went from a player who had offers from Arkansas-Little Rock, Eastern Illinois and South Dakota State, and became one of the key cogs in the Shocker lineup after redshirting. Did you see that one coming? Wichita State and the Missouri Valley are a definite step up from those other places.
And Fred Van Vleet ended as a 1.0 HW30 player, a strong performance from a top 100 recruit and true freshman coming off the bench.
Yes, the new pieces in place on this team -- pieces that will form the majority of the core on this Shocker team moving forward -- have been the difference between a team that looked like No. 86, and a team that is looking at No. 1.
When that ball tips Saturday night, none of those preseason expectations will matter for this team. It will just be one more opportunity to prove everyone wrong and shock the world.
If anyone has learned how to do that this season, it would be Wichita State.