Wally Szczerbiak's description of the Wichita State Shockers doesn't sound like he's describing a mid-major. Instead he points out that under head coach Gregg Marshall, the Shockers have become "tournament perennials" and a "powerhouse." As the leader of a Miami team that made its way into the Sweet 16, Szczerbiak has some insight into what it means to prove yourself on a national stage.
In 1999, Szczerbiak led the nation in both field goals (270) and points (775) and Miami was first in the MAC East at 24-8 (15-3), but lost the MAC Conference Tournament to Kent State. Without the automatic bid locked up the Miami squad was holding their breath during the selection show, but a strong resume got them in with a 10-seed. Miami had defeated some good teams in Tennessee, Xavier, and Wisconsin-Green Bay that year, as well as Notre Dame.
In a similar fashion, although Wichita State failed to win the conference tournament, their title as regular season conference champion and a strong nonconference schedule made them locks for the big dance.
"There's no question that mid-majors have to make hay and win. You have to be prepared in the early season," according to Szczerbiak. "Our coach [Charlie Coles] believed that we had to schedule as tough as possible."
Something even more crucial to Szczerbiak, though, was the toughness faced inside their own conference.
"What really stood out was how good our conference was. Our conference was very underrated then. The Missouri Valley is much more competitive than a lot of people think."
To Szczerbiak, the Mid-American Conference was not only underrated, its constant grind prepared them for the teams in the NCAA Tournament even more so than the non-conference schedule. Because the teams had scouted each other so often and knew each other so well, when it came time for the tournament it was easier to open up the game against teams that weren't as aware of Miami's strengths.
Going into the 1999 Tournament the MAC had both Kent State and Miami. This year the Missouri Valley had two teams in Wichita State and Northern Iowa. Although Kent State lost in the first round to Temple, conference pride is something that can add some extra motivation.
"Any time you get multiple teams in from a smaller conference you have to represent, win, and show you belong. It shows you can compete with any team in the country," Szczerbiak said.
In the first round Miami won 59-58 against the 7-seed, Washington Huskies who had been to the Sweet 16 the season before. In that game Szczerbiak scored 43 of his team's points, accounting for almost 73 percent of his team's scoring. He also had 12 of his team's 25 rebounds. Perhaps Fred VanVleet's 27 in Wichita State' victory over Indiana wasn't quite as dominant, but both teams were clearly captained by a clutch player who the opponent just had no answer for.
The 2-seed Utah Utes loomed, a team that was 28-5, undefeated in the WAC, and had just lost the national championship in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Still, Szczerbiak and his battle tested team weren't intimidated.
"We were very confident," he said. "We were obviously confident coming out of the Washington game... We were a defensive team, a veteran team. I think it's often overlooked how good my teammates were."
Alongside Szczerbiak, seniors Damon Frierson and John Estick were excellent defenders who kept Utah at 58 points - the same score they held Washington to. Without that defense and experience, along with Estick's strong rebounding on both ends of the court, offense would not have been enough to defeat Utah by eight points and advance to the Sweet 16. Similarly, Wichita State hasn't advanced solely on the basis of its offensive game. Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker's defensive abilities have been just as crucial.
"Wichita state is a great defensive team. Their perimeter with Cotton, VanVleet and Baker, is as strong as any in the nation. It says a lot about mid-majors and what they are doing. I am proud of what mid-majors are doing. Gregg Marshall has turned Wichita State into a tournament perennial and they've become a powerhouse."
The perimeter that the WSU guard have established is strong on both sides of the ball, which Szczerbiak believes will pay off in their next game against Notre Dame. Although he admits that he had picked the Irish to advance initially, his mind has been changed by the Shockers' performance so far this tournament.
"It's really going to be a great game. Wichita is just so tough with those guards. I think Wichita State is going to win, and I think they'll overpower [Notre Dame's] guards a little bit," he said. "They're going to shut them down."
When it comes to their potential prospects against Kentucky he's not quite as optimistic.
"I definitely think their guards would match up well, but inside, Kentucky is too strong. The only teams I see beating them are Duke, Wisconsin, and Arizona."
When it comes down to it, Szczerbiak expressed pride in a fellow mid-major not only advancing to the Sweet 16, but doing so over a Kansas team that has refused to play them in the past. When a mid-major picks up the phone to schedule a school and is turned down, the other team is more than just an opponent. Not all teams are able to step up in that moment. But Wichita State?
"They came out and balled, and they had something to prove," Szczerbiak said.