SALT LAKE CITY — The path they traveled to the NCAA tournament might be different, but the dream is the same.
“This is an opportunity to continue to keep playing, and ultimately that’s what competitors want is to win,” said Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall. “The opportunity to advance is what’s going to make it fun.”
Thursday morning No. 8-seeded Pittsburgh (24-8) and No. 9-seeded Wichita State (26-8) will square off at EnergySolutions Arena in the second round of the NCAA tournament’s West Regional. The teams spent Wednesday adjusting to an NBA arena, talking with the media and enjoying “the best steak they’d put in their mouths.”
“We’re both teams that take great pride in defending and rebounding,” said Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon.
When a reporter asked if the teams were “mirror images of each other,” Marshall agreed — with a caveat.
“Except maybe they’re a little bigger,” he said, pointing out that Pitt has 7-foot freshman Steven Adams, who was named to the Big East’s all-freshman team. “I haven’t seen them in person, but they appear to be an inch or two bigger per man. I hope we can stack up with them physically.”
Wichita is led by senior forward Carl Hall, who's averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while junior forward (and junior college transfer) Cleanthony Early leads the scoring with 13.6 points per game. After earning seven straight double-doubles, Early didn't reach double figures in any of the team's three conference tournament games. He knows he has to change that if the team has any chance at beating Pitt.
"The way I played in St. Louis, I know I owe it to my teammates to do better," he said. "I'm hopeful I can tomorrow." Marshall said Early is still adjusting, in many ways, to Division-I college basketball.
“Coaching Cleathony has been great,” said Marshall. “If we don’t add him to the mix as a transfer this year, we’re not sitting here at the NCAA tournament. He is supremely talented.”
That doesn’t mean he can’t get better. In fact, that’s what actually excites his coaches the most.
“One of the things that is most exciting about him is how much better he can become on (the defensive) end of the floor,” Marshall said.
Pitt is led by senior guard Tray Woodall, who averages 11.8 points per game, while teammate junior forward Lamar Patterson adds 10 points per game. The Panthers have a deep bench and are a tough, physical team.
Pitt is a program with a history of NCAA tournament appearances. The Panthers have earned postseason invites 11 of the last 12 years, with last season being the exception. Dixon said his team hasn’t spent a lot of time ruminating about last season’s struggles.
“I think that was a long time ago, is what it seems like,” he said. “We haven’t focused much on that. This is a team that’s gotten better, improved as the year has gone on, especially defensively. This is a team that knows they can do better, and that’s what we’ve tried to do all year.” In fact, unlike its opponent, Pitt felt it deserved a higher seed than its assigned eight.
“I think everyone was shocked honestly,” said senior guard Tray Woodall. “But we’re just happy to be back in the NCAA. We’re not the kind of team that’s going to pout and complain about the seed. We’re just going to go out here and play.”
Added junior forward Lamar Patterson: “We can’t wait to get on the court. It’ll be a fun game. I definitely think it will be a game of rebounding and defense.”
One of the big men Patterson will battle in the paint is senior forward Carl Hall. The Georgia native went so far as to say the game might be decided on the boards.
“The winner on the boards is going to win the game,” said Carl Hall. “I’m just going to come ready to rebound.”
The Shockers see themselves as underdogs, but only because others might have doubted their potential.
“Our expectation was that we knew we could make the tournament,” said Early. “We know a lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far. But our expectations for ourselves were actually higher than what people gave us.” The Shockers lost in the first round of the tournament last year to VCU. It’s a loss that has haunted some of the veteran players. “It lingers with our group of seniors,” said Hall. “We don’t want to go out like we did last year.”
Seeding doesn’t concern Marshall, as he said once a team arrives at the NCAA tournament, there simply are no gimmes.
“Regardless, you’re going to play a good team in the first round,” he said smiling. “We’re just glad to have an opportunity. We just want to limit their easy baskets. Ball security and quality shots is what it will boil down to on the offensive end, and then we just have to scratch and claw and be really focused and engaged on the defensive end.” The two teams will be the first of the four games played in Salt Lake City Thursday with tipoff scheduled for 11:40 a.m.