NORMAL — When Wichita State ended Illinois State’s season on March 9, Dan Muller sensed good things ahead for the Shockers.
“I thought on that day they could have beaten a lot of teams in this country,” said the ISU coach of a 66-51 loss in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals. “I didn’t think that because they beat us. I thought that team was playing better and was different (than two previous wins over ISU).”
Muller’s hunch proved correct. Wichita State, a No. 9 seed, became the first Valley team to reach the Final Four in 34 years, upsetting No. 1-ranked Gonzaga along the way to the West Regional title.
Yet Muller also knows first-hand the task awaiting Wichita State (30-8) in Saturday’s national semifinal game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta will be daunting. The Shockers hope to shock the college basketball world when they face Louisville (33-5), the NCAA Tournament’s overall No. 1 seed.
ISU played one of its best games of the season on Dec. 1. The Redbirds traveled to Louisville and led the Cardinals for most of the game. However, Louisville rallied in the final five minutes to pull out a 69-66 victory as its star-studded backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith accounted for 44 points.
Wichita State will face an obstacle ISU avoided. Gorgui Dieng, the Cardinals’ 6-foot-11 center, sat out against the Redbirds with a broken wrist. Dieng has blocked 78 shots this season.
“Louisville is just different,” said Muller. “As a coach you want to win games in a lot of different ways. Louisville can beat you offensively; they can beat you from the perimeter; they beat you on the boards; they’re very physical; and their defensive pressure and intensity, until you play it, you don’t understand how good it is.
“They can drive the ball so well. They’re so fast and quick at the guard position they can get you in foul trouble.”
Muller, who leaves today for Atlanta to attend the National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention held in conjunction with the Final Four, does give Wichita State a chance to pull the upset.
The Shockers, who took a controversial 68-67 win over ISU on Feb. 17 in Normal, have benefited from Ron Baker’s return. The redshirt freshman guard returned from a foot injury that sidelined him almost three months for the Valley Tournament and gives Wichita State another perimeter threat.
“I think it will be a good game,” said Muller, who will be in the Georgia Dome on Saturday. “If Wichita State can figure out a way to control the tempo and have guys step up and make big shots all throughout the game (the Shockers have a chance).”
Muller believes Wichita State’s trip to the Final Four is “great for our league” and Valley commissioner Doug Elgin, especially in lieu of Creighton leaving to join the new Big East Conference.
The Shockers also give hope to the Redbirds and other Valley teams that something like this can happen in their future.
“It gives players more that thought than coaches because coaches are always striving for and dreaming and expecting those things,” said Muller. “You get 18- to 22-year olds, if you see someone having success similar to you or you feel like you’re as good as, you have more confidence.
“We have to work harder and be tougher as a team. We have to embrace how difficult it is to be consistently successful. I have to do a better job of that with our team.”
Schedule in progress: Whether the Valley adds another school to replace Creighton will affect how many games ISU needs to find for next season’s schedule.
ISU already has home games set against Drexel and Dayton, with road games at Northwestern and Oakland (Mich.). The Redbirds also are expected to play in the Hoops for Hope Challenge, which would include two home games and two games in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, although Muller would not comment on that.
Muller also would not confirm rumors that ISU would play a Big East opponent in a two-game series starting next season at Redbird Arena.
“We will have a tough schedule next year, I will say that,” said Muller.