The First 68: Appreciating perfect Wichita State and imperfect Northwestern

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

This week's whip-around the college hoops world is approved by seldom-used BYU freshman Luke Worthington.

1-9

With Wichita State's perfect season on the line Wednesday night, All-American candidate Cleanthony Early did what All-American candidates are supposed to do. He scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half and sealed the road victory over Indiana State with an and-one basket to put the Shockers up five with just over a minute to play.

Early's heroics gave Wichita a season sweep of the Sycamores, who are the only other team in the Missouri Valley that are more than one game above .500 in conference play. In fact, of the Shockers' final seven regular season games, just one (at Missouri State on March 1) is going to come against a team which currently owns a winning record in the Valley.

The conversation has already started to shift from the magnitude of their potential to whether they'll deserve a No. 1 seed

Despite those seven games still existing as actual sports contests that have to be completed, the main conversation surrounding the Shockers has already started to shift from the magnitude of their potential accomplishment to whether or not they'll deserve a No. 1 seed if it happens. While it's a legitimate (and sexy) subject for debate, it's also one that, regardless of intention, distracts people from paying proper respect to what would be one of the more remarkable college hoops achievements in recent memory.

We hear the same clichés every year when great teams from major conferences lose games to not-so-great teams during league play. There's always the "familiarity" or the "wear and tear" or the "ruggedness" of the conference season to blame. Now I'm not saying these aren't all completely legitimate justifications for late January/early February upsets, I'm just saying that the same absolution that Duke or Michigan State receives in these same situations doesn't seem to be extended to ranked squads from the Valley or the Atlantic 10.

The term "mid-major" tears through the eardrums of lots of folks in the Midwest, and with good reason. The Missouri Valley has sent teams to the Final Four 17 times, and owns an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 92-99. Since 2006, the league has had four teams advance to at least the Sweet 16, making them the only non-BCS league to send more than two squads to the second weekend over that span.

The Valley has produced some tremendous teams, but the vast majority of those squads have been beaten down at least a little bit by the...here it comes...wear and tear that the league presents each and every year.

How consistently tough have things been? Consider the following facts:

--In the three-point era of college basketball (1986-87 season through the present), not one Missouri Valley team has gone through conference play undefeated.

--Over that same time span, all but one of the MVC's regular season champions have had at least 20 overall wins.

Wichita State

--The only regular season champ that didn't win 20 games was 19-10 Illinois State in 1993, and even then, runner-up Southern Illinois was a sparkling 23-8.

--The average win total for the MVC regular season champion since 1987 is 24.9. Since the 200-01 season, the average win total of the Valley's regular season champion is 27.1, and no champ has won fewer than 24 games.

--Despite the strength of the Valley's champions over the past three decades, just one team in the last 27 years has finished conference play with fewer than two league losses, and just five have finished with fewer than three.

None of this has any bearing on Wichita State's status as a potential No. 1 seed or on their chances to make it to the Final Four for a second straight season. The Shockers have the potential to win six straight games in the big dance, I think most of us would agree that it's at least possible. But, just like every other 1-4 seed, they also have the potential to not make it out of the tournament's opening weekend. If they pull a 2013 Gonzaga on the big stage and give all their doubters that "told you so" moment, it still shouldn't take away from the significance of sweeping the Valley and becoming the first team since St. Joe's in 2004 to run the table in the regular season.

If it happens.

10-13

This is the time of year where we start to hear a lot about "overcoming adversity." There are key injuries to major contributors on teams in the national title hunt (Brandon Ashley at Arizona, like 25 guys at Michigan State), there are player who are dismissed from school (Stevie Clark at Oklahoma State, Solomon Poole at Georgia Tech), and then there are teams that have simply underachieved and are attempting to rally together and save their season.

All of that stuff pales in comparison, however, to what Creighton and senior guard Grant Gibbs are currently dealing with. And we're not talking about Gibbs' fractured kneecap...

Screen_shot_2014-02-07_at_12

That would be the Twitter account of "Local Motive," a food truck in Omaha that has apparently closed up shop. A search for more details on the controversy turned up little more than a website indicating that a "mechanical issue" with the truck had temporarily delayed operations, but that was from October of last year. The sandwiches look good though.

Obviously this is a huge lift for Villanova in what has become a two-horse race for the Big East title.

14-17

I think we have to talk about Northwestern. But before we talk about Northwestern, we have to let Rodger Sherman talk about Northwestern.

They say it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, well, I say the person who said that is a stupid jerk and I hate them.

There was something crushing about the few years where Northwestern was truly on the brink of NCAA Tournament participation. It was the perennial tease: seeing Jared Sullinger or whoever stride off the court after beating Northwestern by one in a game that would have likely pushed the Wildcats onto the right side of the bubble, I understood how Sisyphus felt when the big stone went a-tumblin.

...

As of right now, Northwestern basketball is perfectly meaningless, and this makes our random, weird, stupid wins completely spectacular.

The troops are coming: Chris Collins' incoming class is supposedly the most talented group ever to play at Northwestern, and he's working defensive magic with the supposed scrubs he was left. For now, I'm loving rallying around some dudes hell-bent on playing tough D, and we can daydream about the tourney we'll make someday if things keep going this way.

The Wildcats haven't done this in more than 50 years

The Wildcats, winners of four of their last five, are currently riding a three-game road winning streak in the Big Ten for the first time since 1959-60. Seriously, they haven't done this in more than 50 years. This was the type of thing that was expected to happen last season or the one before that, not when Northwestern was supposed to be back to being one of the two or three worst power conference teams in the country.

There isn't a more apt description for the way Northwestern has been winning than "weird and stupid," because I think the Wildcats look worse when they achieve quality victories than any team in the history of college basketball has. I've watched bits and pieces of NU's wins at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and I've been both blown away and thrilled by how awful they've looked in the process of knocking off these potential tournament teams. It's unbelievable and enthralling at the same time.

There are very few teams in the country that I want to watch play basketball right now more than the Northwestern Wildcats, and I still think the Northwestern Wildcats are terrible. I hope they suck their way right to a top half finish in the Big Ten standings and a miracle run in Indianapolis.

18-44

Since we just talked about Northwestern, let's profile some other teams that have never been to the NCAA Tournament but have a fighting chance to make the field of 68 this season.

High Point and Garnder-Webb (Big South)

The Big South is wide open right now with no team in the conference sitting prettier than 6-3 and nine of the 12 squads owning records of 4-5 or better. Two of the teams right in the middle of that race are High Point (10-12 ,6-3) and Gardner-Webb (12-12, 5-4), neither of which have ever been dancing. The Panthers' (that's High Point) all-time claim to fame is probably being the alma mater of Tubby Smith, while the Runnin' Bulldogs (that's Gardner-Webb) are probably still best known for upsetting the program where Smith won a national championship (Kentucky). That's...something?

UC Irvine (Big West)

The Anteaters had their hearts broken by Pacific in last year's Big West title game, but they have a great shot at putting themselves in a position to gain redemption this year. Irvine currently finds itself at 6-2 and tied atop the league standings with Alan Williams' UCSB squad. The only issue is that Santa Barbara put a 20-point beatdown on their co-leaders in the two teams' only meeting of the season thus far. Fellow lifetime tournament look-ins UC Davis, UC Riverside and Cal Poly are smack in the middle of the Big West standings and could make a run in the 8-team league tournament.

William & Mary (Colonial Athletic Association)

Bill and Mary is one of the five original Division-I teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament (Northwestern, The Citadel, Army and St. Francis (NY) are the others). They're a solid 14-8 overall and 6-3 in the CAA, but 10-0 Delaware is looking a bit like an unstoppable force at the moment. The Blue Hens stomped The Tribe 89-72 in Williamsburg back on Jan. 29.

Buffalo (Mid-American)

The Bulls are 10-0 at Alumni Arena, tied for second in the MAC's East Division, and they have Javon McCrea. Akron and Toledo look like they're probably at least a small notch ahead of the rest of the league, but there's still plenty of cause for optimism for the extremely patient and deserving heroes over at Bull Run.

North Carolina Central (MEAC)

The Eagles were the only team in the MEAC to begin league play with a winning record, and currently lead the conference by a full game at 7-1. Savannah State (8-15, 6-3) is another team in the top half of the standings that's never made the tournament, but this appears to be Central's year.

Bryant and St. Francis of New York (Northeast)

We mentioned it earlier, but St. Francis is one of the just five original D-I schools from 1948 that still hasn't made the NCAA Tournament. That makes the Terriers the sentimental favorites here, especially when you consider that the other team listed, Bryant, is only in its second season of even being tournament eligible. The teams are currently second (Bryant) and third (St. Francis) in the NEC, but both looking up at 8-1 Robert Morris.

Army (Patriot League)

Not only have the Black Knights never been to the dance, but they'd never even had a winning record in the Patriot League before going 8-6 last season. They're in the process of taking the next step this year thanks to a loaded sophomore class that includes reigning conference Freshman of the Year Kyle Wilson (19.2 ppg). Army's 8-3 and still in position to make a run at the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, but they've failed to beat any of the other teams in the top four of the league - Boston, American and Holy Cross. The good news is they'll get rematches with each before the postseason.

IPFW (Summit League)

The Mastadons are 6-2 and tied with North Dakota State for the top spot in the Summit at the halfway point in the season. The South Dakota Coyotes and the Western Illinois Leathernecks are also tourney never-beens with matching 3-4 records and completely unmatching levels of bad-assness in their nicknames. I mean, nothing against Coyotes, but...I don't even need to say anything else.

45-50

There was talk among some conspiracy theorists (hand raised) two years ago that the reason Iona received an extremely surprising at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament was because their up-tempo style of play would make the First Four in Dayton a more enjoyable viewing experience. The ironic thing is that the team that wound up beating the Gaels inside UD Arena, BYU, may find itself in the exact same situation this season.

The Cougars can currently be found on each and every oh-so-premature bubble watch floating around the Internet, but they also play one of the most exciting brands of basketball in the country, averaging just shy of 90 points per game. Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino are guards with zero conscious, which has to be frustrating for BYU fans, but is fantastic for the casual observer.

Four losses in a down WCC isn't going to impress anyone, but BYU played a brutal non-conference schedule that left it with quality wins over Stanford and Texas. If they can win at Saint Mary's or at home against Gonzaga and avoid stumbles against the rest of the league, they might be in position to entertain a basketball-hungry nation again on opening Monday or Tuesday.

Your thoughts, seldom-used freshman Luke Worthington?

Screen_shot_2014-02-07_at_2
via @rakoto10

Agreed.

51-53

For the first time in several weeks, the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 narrows in our national scoring race update.

1. Antoine Mason, Niagara (26.6 ppg)
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton (25.0 ppg)
3. Tyler Haws, BYU (24.6 ppg)
4. Aaric Murray, Texas Southern (23.9 ppg)
5. Billy Baron, Canisius (23.6 ppg)

54-58

Bracketology

They have virtually no shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but I don't think that should be keeping Kevin Stallings from getting at least a little bit of SEC Coach of the Year buzz right now. Vanderbilt has seven (seven!) scholarship players available, and somehow they've rattled off four straight wins and are 5-4 in conference play.

A mixture of transfers, suspensions and injuries have led Stallings to a place where he's starting players he was hoping to redshirt and dressing players who were student managers four months ago. It's a situation that has fans in Nashville referring to the group - which is riding high after consecutive wins over Texas A&M, Georgia, Mississippi State and rival Tennessee - as "The Magnificent Seven."

Stallings probably won't bring home any national awards even if the Mag 7 plays itself into the NCAA Tournament discussion, but he might earn some additional coin.

59-60

A Cal student and a writer for our own California Golden Blogs completed a Rubik's Cube behind Bill Walton in about 23 seconds during the Bears' loss to Stanford on Wednesday.


I could do my seven times table aloud in 23 seconds behind Bill Walton. You don't see me putting that on YouTube.

Coulda gone to Cal.

/kicks dirt

61-64

Conference realignment has done a lot of bad for college basketball in terms of ripping apart long-existing conference rivalries like Kansas/Missouri and Syracuse/Georgetown. The reward for all of this madness, if there is one, is that now we're all privy to the genesis of what could be some of the defining rivalries of the modern era, like Syracuse/Duke.

Coach K seems to be cool with it, and put it best in the moments immediately following last Saturday's extraordinary game.

"Great rivalries don't have to be built on hatred. They're built on respect. On a respect for excellence."

Word.

Luke Worthington, you agree?

Screen_shot_2014-02-07_at_2

Luke Worthington's on board.

65-67

The relative struggles of the teams possessing the most highly-touted members of the recruiting class of 2013 have been discussed ad nauseum this season, but what about the flip side of that coin?

Cincinnati has come out of virtually nowhere to earn a top 10 ranking and own complete control of the AAC with an 11-0 record. Five of those 11 conference wins have come by six points or less, including a three-point triumph over preseason favorite Louisville and a five-point Thursday night win over No. 22 Connecticut.

What may be helping UC in these clutch situations is that the average age of their starting five is 22.7. Star guard Sean Kilpatrick, who might be the front-runner for AAC Player of the Year, is 24-years-old and just 13 months younger than Kevin Durant. Durant is in the middle of his seventh NBA season.

Experience matters...sometimes. Experience matters for Cincinnati. Probably.

68

And finally, it's that time of the week again where we send you home with a creepy mascot photo...

20131116_ajw_ac4_260

That's Chip, the Colorado Buffalo mascot, wearing a cutout of Kevin Bacon's head like a pair of pants. Way to bring home You win, Chip.

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