In one way, an era ended for Wichita State after its round of 32 loss to Miami on Saturday. It was the final game for the two players who saw the Shockers through the greatest four-year run in the history of their program, and possibly the history of any mid-major program.
Since Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet arrived in Wichita, here's what the Shockers have accomplished:
- Four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, never losing in the first round
- A Sweet Sixteen and a Final Four
- An undefeated regular season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament
- Wins over Kansas, Indiana, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Arizona and more
There is no question that Wichita State, of all programs, has been one of the best in the country over the course of Baker and VanVleet's careers. And while the Shockers have had some greats players alongside those two, they have justifiably been the cornerstones of this program's rise.
But perhaps just as important as the on-court success during this era has been what Baker and VanVleet have done for Wichita State's perception as it attempts to shed the "mid-major" label.
By any typical definition, Wichita State is a mid-major. The Shockers play in the Missouri Valley Conference, which has underrated basketball, but is nowhere near the power conferences in strength. They don't have football to boost the school's profile. They rank 105th nationally in revenue with a budget similar to such powerhouses as Towson, Cal Tech, William & Mary and Florida Atlantic. Their $24 million in yearly revenue is $100 million less than the top 10 teams in the country.
Money isn't everything, but there's a reason six of the 10 riches schools in the country got NCAA Tournament bids, while Wichita State is the only team outside the top 100 public schools in revenue to get an at-large bid this season.
But as the program has gotten better, the support for it has, too. Because even with their top players leaving, the Shockers aren't willing to give up their success.
When numerous programs tried to steal away top coach Gregg Marshall, the Shockers ponied up big money to keep him, paying him $3 million a year, which ranks 10th nationally. That was thanks in large part to billionaire Charles Koch, who picked up part of the tab. The institutional money isn't there for Wichita State, but the donor money is, as Koch and his brother, David, are two of the six richest men in America.
The key to unlocking donor money is to excite the base, and that's what Baker and VanVleet did.
Success begets success, and recruits are starting to see it, too. Baker and VanVleet were not top recruits, but their success has started attracting better players. No longer will the Shockers need to rely on developing diamonds in the rough.
Even without Baker and VanVleet, Wichita State will be the Missouri Valley favorite again next season. Former four-star recruit and freshman forward Markis McDuffie is expected to make a jump, and sophomore starter Zach Brown returns. Darrlyn Willis, the 10th-ranked junior college recruit who chose the Shockers over Iowa State and Marquette, joins the roster, as well.
In a strange way, with its unique circumstances and booster support, Wichita State was a sleeping mid-major power. Baker and VanVleet awoke the program, and now have it well-placed for future success.
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