By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cleanthony Early heard someone say before the start of the NCAA tournament that only about 30 percent of brackets filled out by fans had Wichita State winning its first game.
Well, the junior forward has just one question now: How many had the Shockers winning two?
In a tournament that has given rise to the lower class, where double-digit seeds have become adept at knocking off the blue bloods, the ninth-seeded Shockers’ upset of No. 1 seed Gonzaga has put them in a position to make an improbable run at the Final Four.
The Shockers (28-8) take on No. 13 seed La Salle on Thursday night in Los Angeles, and then would get sixth-seeded Arizona or No. 2 seed Ohio State for a spot in Atlanta.
“You hear stuff,” Anthony said, “and people come up to you saying, ‘What do you think, 70 percent of America has you losing the first game?’ And you have to avoid everyone’s opinion and go out there and play hard. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because we play the game of basketball and that’s what we’re going to do to the best of our ability.”
They’ve done it pretty well most of the season even if most of the country hasn’t been aware of it.
Wichita State was overshadowed all year in the Missouri Valley by perennial contender Creighton and its high-scoring forward, Doug McDermott. And the school is naturally overshadowed in its own state by mighty Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, and Kansas State, which was ousted from the tournament in the second round by the Shockers’ next opponent, La Salle.
So despite racking up 109 wins over the past four years, winning an NIT title and reaching the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, the Shockers continue to fly under the radar.
“We don’t talk about it too much, to be honest,” said coach Gregg Marshall, who has the school back in the round of 16 for the first time since Mark Turgeon led it there in 2006.
“You keep winning, you’ll get notoriety,” Marshall said. “I think the fact that we’re in the middle of the country, not on the East Coast, not on the West Coast, not in a BCS league, you get used to it. But ultimately, it’s your play that gets people to talk about you.”
Wichita State ran roughshod over eighth-seeded Pittsburgh in its tournament opener, and then managed to combine silky smooth shooting with its rough-and-tumble style to rally from an eight-point second-half hole and send Gonzaga home early.
“We were at the movies and I was watching the first half on my phone,” said La Salle guard Tyrone Garland, “and I saw they were up and I was like, ‘These guys are good.’
“When I got home to the hotel and saw the second half, they play hard, just like we do,” Garland said. “They play defense and they have good guards. They have players that come off the bench and contribute, just like we do. I just think they are kind of just like us. They go out there and play hard and whatever happens, happens.”
La Salle may be the biggest surprise in a West Region ripped to shreds, but the Shockers are relishing the chance to make a little history of their own.
They can join Boston College in 1994 as the only No. 9 seeds to make a regional final with a win over the Explorers. Wichita State hasn’t made it that far since 1981, and before that, it was the school’s Final Four year back in 1965.
The Shockers are such a big deal in Wichita that hundreds of fans showed up at the airport to greet them over the weekend, and thousands turned out at Koch Arena for a pep rally on Sunday. Heck, they even got impromptu congratulations from Tim Tebow.
The Shockers had just returned from Salt Lake City and boarded a bus on the airport tarmac in Wichita when the NFL quarterback, whose plane had stopped to refuel, asked the pilot to taxi over to them. He hopped on their bus and, basically, told them to live it up.
“Some of you may go play in the NBA and have great lives, but this you’ll remember forever,” Tebow told the players. “This is what it’s made of, and this is a special time in your life.”
The message lasted just a couple minutes, but it left quite an impression.
“I’m a big Tim Tebow fan,” Marshall said, “and he came on and was perfect — ‘This is a time you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and take advantage of it.’”