They said they play angry.
But when asked to describe exactly what that means, the Wichita State basketball players with soft voices and shy smiles described something that sounds a lot like affection.
“It means to play with toughness,” said senior guard Malcom Armstead. “You’ve got to leave it all on the floor, have fun, play for your teammates.” His teammate Cleanthony Early added, “It means to play with emotion, with heart.”
Playing angry, apparently, means that when the world labels you a supporting actor, you give them Heath Ledger as the Joker in the "Dark Knight" or R. Lee Ermy’s Sgt. Hartman in "Full Metal Jacket."
It means taking that cameo and making it an Oscar-worthy performance.
Playing angry apparently means that when opportunity knocks, you don’t worry about anything other than how to capitalize on the open door.
It means that rather than take offense when the national media calls your coach by the wrong name, you make sure they have to interview him again — multiple times.
Playing angry means that when other teams lament the lack of respect with which they were seeded, you just smile and say, “We’re just grateful to be invited.”
It means you understand that rankings, expectations and accolades don’t help you rebound, make shots or frustrate opposing players.
It means when all seems to be going wrong, you find a way to make the detour work to your advantage.
After WSU upset the country’s number-one ranked team in Gonzaga Saturday night, head coach Gregg Marshall said that no one knew how much adversity the players had battled in order to dance to a fight song played by their band in the corner of EnergySolutions Arena.
In the four days he’d been in Salt Lake City, Marshall had mentioned some of the situations superficially. But the reality is that it wasn’t just a surprise that the unranked team earned a berth into the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen, but that it managed to win most of the games it played this season.
On Dec. 18, 2012, two of the players who were key in WSU’s thrilling run were watching from the sidelines, hoping their teammates could carry the team until they returned. Senior forward Carl Hall missed four weeks with a break in his thumb so severe it required surgery. Redshirt freshman Ron Baker suffered a stress fracture in his foot that meant missing 21 games.
Armstead, a senior, gave up a scholarship at Oregon to finish his collegiate career in Wichita. His family took out loans and he got a part-time job.
Early is a “supremely talented” junior college transfer who is still finding his place among those in the very hard-nosed, no-nonsense group. After seven straight double-doubles, he didn’t manage to score double figures in any of the team’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament games.
There was sophomore guard Tekele Cotton, who logged the most minutes and offered an absolute clinic in playing defense against Pitt Thursday. Marshall said he wasn’t the “most skilled basketball player” but he was all heart. His hard work made him a Division I basketball player who could knock down a 3-point shot just when his team needed it.
The truth is that every eligible player logged minutes in Saturday’s upset of Gonzaga. But maybe none more spectacularly than freshman guard Fred VanVleet, who hit a 3-point shot with 1:28 on the clock and with the Shockers clinging to a 67-65 lead.
It was a shot that’s certain to be discussed with affection and awe for generations in Wichita. Not just because it was timely, but because it was taken under tremendous pressure by an 18-year-old kid who had no business shooting it, let alone making it.
It was never the plan to rely on a freshman.
It was never the plan to shoot 50 percent against the country’s best team.
The plan was simply to play for each other. The plan was to give each play everything they had. The plan was to do what the team needed, even if that meant watching from the bench.
The plan was to play angry. After all, wouldn’t it make you angry if someone meant to end your time with guys who’d become your family, with men who’d become like uncles and fathers?
Basketball is just a game they love. But in leaning on each other throughout tough personal issues and trying team situations, they become more than teammates.
Before they ever played a single second of tournament basketball, Marshall summed up what motivated his team very simply.
It wasn’t big dreams of beautiful upsets or finally basking in the national spotlight.
It was simply the chance to spend another day in the company of the only other people who really understand what it means to play angry.
“There is an opportunity to continue playing, and ultimately that’s what competitors want, is to win,” Marshall said. “The opportunity to advance is what’s going to make it fun.”