WICHITA, Kan. – A couple of years ago, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall trotted out the motto "Play Angry" to encourage and inspire his perpetually overlooked and undervalued team.
Might be time to resurrect it.
The Shockers were given the No. 10 seed in the South Region, which just might trump anybody getting left out as the biggest snub of the NCAA Tournament. Wichita State hasn't lost since January and twice avenged that defeat, rolled through the Missouri Valley Tournament, and just about every advanced metric puts the Shockers among the best teams in the country.
The selection committee disagreed, putting the Shockers in a first-round game against seventh-seeded Dayton. The winner will likely face No. 2 seed Kentucky in the next round.
"I'm just glad they didn't forget about," Marshall said with only mild sarcasm. "I was starting to think they might forget about us and not put us in at all."
The Shockers (30-4) are used to getting a raw deal in March.
They were a ninth seed four years ago when they rode the chip on their shoulder all the way to the school's first Final Four in nearly five decades. They gave eventual national champion Louisville all it could handle, too, before falling 72-68. The following year, they became the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the dance unbeaten, only to face red-hot and under-seeded Kentucky in the second round. The eighth-seeded Wildcats won a nail-biter before advancing to the national title game.
Wichita State was the seventh seed the following year and promptly bumped Indiana and No. 2 seed Kansas from the field. Last year, the Shockers were relegated to a play-in game. They won, of course, and beat sixth-seeded Arizona before the grind of three games in three days caught up to them.
In other words, the selection committee has rarely been kind to Wichita State.
"It's kind of par for the course," said the Shockers' Landry Shamet, adding that low expectations have followed this team all year following the graduation of stars Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
"This whole year we're supposed to have fallen off. The downfall of Wichita State. Armageddon, basically," Shamet said. "Everybody here already has that chip. That's the unique thing about these guys. Coach recruits those kinds of guys with that, and enhances that vibe when they get here."
As for the No. 10 seed?
"We thought we were higher than that," Shamet said, "so I guess that will add to that."
It's not just that Wichita State was given a low seed, Shamet said. It's that the Shockers were also given a low seed in what is perhaps the toughest of the four regions.
North Carolina's strong finish earned it the No. 1 seed in the South, while the Wildcats and their bevy of NBA prospects top the bottom half of the bracket. Third-seeded UCLA has potential No. 1 draft pick Lonzo Ball and March darling Butler is the No. 4 seed.
There is never an easy path to the Final Four, but that road is especially brutal.
"So many crazy things happen to a bracket," Marshall said. "I remember the year we were a one-seed, our bracket had Kentucky and then we had Louisville, Michigan and Duke on our side. Now you've got North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA. I think they said there's 24 combined national championships between those three. If we win this year, that'll be 25.
"If we have to go through them," he added, "so be it."
Asked to defend the seed, NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman Mark Hollis pointed out the Shockers only have one win against anybody else in the field: Summit League champ South Dakota State.
That isn't entirely their fault, though.
While mid-major powers such as Gonzaga have been able to schedule games against perennial powers, the Shockers have struggled to do likewise. Those big-name schools still think losing to the Shockers constitutes a bad loss, and many aren't willing to take that chance. The Valley was also down this year with Illinois State getting left out of the dance.
Wichita State did squander two chances to earn a marquee win in the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing close games to Michigan State and Louisville. But those were played in November, and the Shockers are a far different team than they were four months ago.
"We're going to be ready," the Shockers' Markis McDuffie said. "We're very excited to play against high-major teams. You don't always get many chances at that. I feel like all year, we've been preparing ourselves for this moment and I think now that time is here."