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."
Ask which player is the heart of the team, and you'll get a different answer every time.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller said that's exactly the point. While he said he realizes VanVleet's value to the team, it's not any greater than that of guards Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton or forward Cleanthony Early.
"They get it from all different areas," Muller said. "Their 1 through 4 are all really good and instrumental to how good they are."
Lansing noted that the Shockers' play began to elevate last season, when Baker began playing more. Lansing and Missouri State coach Paul Lusk agreed that Cotton was probably the most overlooked of the group because he functions more as a "glue guy."
"Tekele Cotton is just a tough, tough competitor," Lansing said. "He's a very unselfish guy, the best defender they have. He just does the little things that his team needs. He's not worried about scoring, but if he has to score he will. He plays his role better than anybody else."
Evansville sophomore guard D.J. Balentine said he believes that distinction goes to the 6-foot-8 Early. The senior leads the Shockers with 15.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, and Balentine said his teammates respond to him the most.
"He'll get them all together, he'll get big buckets," Balentine said. "They know when to get him the ball, and he knows when to take over. It ain't hard to tell."
When it comes to who's playing center-by-committee for the Shockers, it is hard to tell. They virtually operate in complete anonymity, which is partly because the Shockers lack a true center.
During any given game, Wichita coach Gregg Marshall may use three players at center, including Darius Carter, who at 6-7 is the most undersized of the group. Seniors Chadrack Lufile (6-9, 266 pounds) and Kadeem Coleby (6-9, 251) bring bulk to the position, and as Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson noted, "it's hard to beat them up inside."
"They don't get enough attention paid to the players that have been playing at the center position because they're playing three guys there," Jacobson said. "Their minutes are down. They don't have stats in terms of points and rebounds that jump off the page."
Individually, they don't. But collectively, they've proved more than capable.
Combine the averages of Lufile, Carter and Coleby and the Shockers have a center who scored 16.5 points, grabbed 12.5 rebounds and blocked 2.8 shots per game. But it's hard to realize how effective they are because no one player is generally on the floor for too long. Carter's 18.3 minutes per game is the highest average of the trio.
Wichita State has arguably earned more national attention during the regular season than it did during the previous history of the program. But it's by no means a glamorous team. Early is the only player considered a surefire first-rounder in the NBA draft.
The Shockers have climbed to the elite ranks through the unceremonious way of playing defense and rebounding. They're good at devising a game plan that takes away their opponent's strength. In last season's NCAA tournament semifinal against Louisville, the Shockers held the backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva to a combined 7-of-26 from the field.
"They're so solid across the board defensively, rebounding in every position and finishing those possessions," Lansing said. "They make you take a tough shot. They make you try to beat them by taking a tough shot."
Wichita will use full-court pressure, but isn't so one-dimensional that if its press doesn't work, an opponent automatically has a field day. The Shockers clog the lane in the half court and protect the rim without having an intimidating 7-footer at center. They rank seventh nationally with a 7.8 rebounding margin. They're 11th in scoring defense, allowing just 59.6 points per game. And they're 14th in field goal percentage defense at 39.2 percent. Giacoletti said they remind him of Michigan State teams of the past.
"They're not the normal, just out-talent you and outscore you team like most are in college basketball," he said. "They have a toughness defensively, where they take great pride in rebounding the ball on every possession."
Manny Arop, a 6-5 senior, played two seasons at Gonzaga before transferring to Indiana State. As a freshman in 2009-10, he was a reserve who played against eventual 2010 national champion Duke and Michigan State, which made the Final Four that season.
He faced the Shockers three times this season and said they belong with the elites.
"They're as tough as any opponent I've ever played against since I've been in college," Arop said. "They're way tougher than they were last year -- and we know what they did last year."
The Shockers have come to rely on their spurts. Their opponents in the Valley have come to expect them, too. The Shockers have been in plenty of games that were close in the second half, but they inevitably create separation when their opponent slips up.
"The reason why they're certainly an elite team this year, they have an ability to get on runs with their offense or their defense," Jacobson said. "It may come at any point in the game."
Moser recalled a series that effectively ended Loyola's momentum in a home loss to the Shockers. Loyola had cut its deficit to single digits and was "starting to get some hope."
"They took a shot, you watch film, we had four guys block out. The one guy we didn't block out got the rebound and layup," Moser said. "We come down, my point guard had one turnover the whole game, he chanced it, Early steals it, makes the basket, and-1. Our hope lasted for 10 seconds."
Lusk knows better than most how quickly the Shockers can pounce. Missouri State led the Shockers by five with two minutes left in regulation on Jan. 11. With less than 60 seconds remaining and a four-point lead, the home crowd may have let court-storming ambitions creep into its collective mind.
It all changed in an instant when a controversial blocking foul was called on Nathan Scheer with 47 seconds left. VanVleet converted a three-point play that cut the Bears' lead to one. The call was out of their control, but as Lusk pointed out, they didn't take care of what was theirs. They turned it over on their ensuing possession, allowing the Shockers to send the game into overtime, where they eventually won.
"That's what good teams do like Wichita State," Lusk said. "If you keep that door ever so slightly open, they're going to find a way to bust through it."