SALT LAKE CITY — Forty-six years have passed since Wichita State had a crack at the No. 1 team in the country.
That opponent was part of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty. This one bears no resemblance to that.
The Shockers woke up Friday, sensing a realistic opportunity for an upset after seeing top-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga survive a scare the day before against 16th-seeded Southern.
“This group thinks they can beat anyone in the country, and they’re not intimidated,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said of gearing up to face the Zags on Saturday. “They’re not afraid. They’re not going to lose their confidence. They’ve shown that all year long.”
Wichita State’s last tangle with a No. 1 was in 1967 against UCLA, a team that went on to win its fourth of 10 titles during the Wooden era. The Shockers lost by 34.
Gonzaga (32-2) is hardly UCLA, and now has “Vulnerable” stamped on its resume, with Friday headlines and tweets screaming that Southern exposed the Zags as a top-seed fraud.
How will the Zags and star big man Kelly Olynyk respond Saturday against a physical team not afraid to deliver the first blow? And can the ninth-seeded Shockers pull off the ultimate shocker and take them down?
“I think we all will come out with higher energy,” said Gonzaga senior forward Elias Harris, who struggled with 2-of-10 shooting against Southern. “Everyone will try to knock off the No. l seed, so we have to be ready for any challenge.”
History favors the little school from Spokane, Wash., over the fellow mid-major from Wichita.
Never mind that the Zags are making their 15th straight NCAA tournament appearance, and have advanced to the Round of 16 five times and the regional final once, in 1999.
A look at past brackets indicates a tough first game for the top seed doesn’t always mean trouble in the next round.
Since 1996, only one of 14 No. 1 seeds that won their first game by 15 points or fewer lost their next — Purdue in 1996 to Georgia, according to STATS. The others advanced by an average margin of 14 points.
Five went on to the Final Four and two won the national championship — Maryland in 2002 and Kentucky in 2012.
Marshall said Gonzaga critics overlook the fact Southern is a very good, well-coached team.
“I didn’t see Gonzaga playing that poorly,” Marshall said Friday. “I saw Southern playing really, really well, and maybe over their head.”
It was enough to let his mind drift, and start worrying about facing the Southwestern Conference Jaguars instead of the West Coast Conference champions.
“Gonzaga will bounce back,” Marshall said. “They had their scare. They’ll be fine. They’ll come out ready to play. I’m not concerned about that. I’ve got to make sure my guys are ready for Gonzaga and I’m anticipating Gonzaga being at their best.”
Wichita State (27-8) wouldn’t be in this position were it not for the persistence of senior guard Malcolm Armstead, who took a long and winding road to Wichita.
The prep standout from Florence, Ala., first headed to Chipola (Fla.) Junior College for a season. Marshall tried to recruit him to Wichita State after that, but Armstead headed to Oregon with a friend and started at point for a year before a coaching change had him calling Marshall to seek a transfer.
One problem: Wichita State didn’t have a scholarship.
“We told him that and he took out loans,” Marshall said of the 6-foot guard, who sat out the 2011-12 season because of transfer rules. “His family took a financial hit to attend Wichita State, and he got a part-time job, and probably is still in debt to this day.”
Armstead, however, is paying big dividends for the Shockers, scoring a team-high 22 points — double his average — in Thursday’s win over Pittsburgh.
He’ll likely be the one chasing around guards Gary Bell Jr. or Kevin Pangos, while running the Shockers offense against Gonzaga.
“I have a lot of trust in him and I have a lot of belief in him,” said Marshall, who had his share of good point guards as Winthrop’s coach for nine years.
Pressure doesn’t seem to faze Armstead, who wanted to wave off Marshall’s ball-screen inbounds play late against Pitt as if to say, “We’re fine without it.”
“He’s been a great young man to coach,” Marshall added. “I’m pleased we’re advancing in the tournament for guys like him that have sacrificed quite a bit to be in this situation.”