Ray Giacoletti witnessed the launch of Wichita State's Final Four run last season from his unfortunate spot as an assistant coach on Gonzaga's bench. The Bulldogs were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament's West Region when the ninth-seeded Shockers upset them in the round of 32.
Having just completed his first season as the head coach at Drake, Giacoletti had two chances to leave a blemish on the Shockers' perfect record this season. His assessment of Wichita last season and the team that was awarded the Midwest's No. 1 seed this season was that there's no comparison.
"Everybody wants to know if they're better," Giacoletti said. "Well, yeah, they're a lot better. Now, does that mean they're going to go back to the Final Four? No."
The Midwest Region is packed with potential land mines for the Shockers, starting with a possible meeting with Kentucky, the preseason No. 1-ranked team, in the round of 32. Last season's champion, Louisville -- which was the last team to beat the Shockers, in the 2013 Final Four -- could await in the round of 16. Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan, which joined Wichita in last season's Final Four, and Duke, led by winningest college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, are potential Elite Eight foes.
Forget for a second the opponents that could stand in their way. The opponents they have already defeated say the Shockers are capable of putting together another Final Four run. And it starts with what Giacoletti said is the biggest difference between last season and this season.
"They believe now," Giacoletti said. "I think they were just starting to believe back then."
Wichita State has converted believers throughout the Missouri Valley Conference. ESPN.com asked coaches and players of those nine league opponents to define just who the Shockers are from the teams that know them best.
Remember the name Fred VanVleet. Indiana State coach Greg Lansing described him as the "consummate point guard" after watching him dish a career-high 10 assists against the Sycamores. The Shockers' sophomore point guard has fully matured this season and does all the things a coach would want from a leader on the floor.
He passes: VanVleet's assist-turnover ratio is roughly 5-1.
"You want a point guard that makes everybody better, he uplifts everybody," Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said. "He does a great job of drawing two players and his passes are right where a shooter wants it, when he wants it."
He defends: VanVleet leads the team with 66 steals.
"A real underrated part of his game is on the defensive end," said Bradley coach Geno Ford, who voted for VanVleet as MVC Player of the Year. "When you drive the ball and he's in help, he has incredibly accurate hands at raking the ball out from you."
He scores: VanVleet took over down the stretch of Wichita's overtime win at Missouri State, scoring 11 straight points to end regulation and start overtime.
"He's not real flashy, but he's outstanding on the ball screens," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. "You have to show a lot of help to him."
He's poised: VanVleet had one turnover or none in 19 games.
"It's the sign of a good player," Southern Illinois Barry Hinson said. "His pace is never determined by what someone is doing. It's about him."