Appreciating Wichita State's undefeated regular season

Peter Aiken

The time for talking about Wichita State's NCAA Tournament prospects will come. For now, let's all just sit back and appreciate an achievement that we haven't seen in a decade.

For the first time since 2004, a Division I team will enter the postseason with an unblemished record. As was the case with Saint Joseph's a decade ago, the story surrounding Wichita State's perfect regular season is destined to become more about the postseason ramifications than the achievement itself. That's a shame.

The Shockers' 18th Missouri Valley victory came in a familiar fashion. They led from start to finish, suffocating a solid Missouri State team into 31.4 percent shooting and just 45 total points. All-American candidate Cleanthony Early led the way with 19 points, while outside assassin Ron Baker added 13 more and point guard Fred VanVleet, perhaps the team's most valuable player, dished out seven assists while turning the ball over just once. It was the same recipe for success that we've seen since Wichita State opened its season on Nov. 9 and the same one that has led to 31 victories, only three of which have come by fewer than seven points.

In early February, despite there being seven or eight games left to play, the main conversation surrounding the Shockers had already started to shift from the magnitude of their potential accomplishment to whether or not they would deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 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 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, especially in late February or early March. 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 upsets toward the end of the regular season. I'm just saying that the same absolution that Duke or Michigan State receives in these 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 92-100. Since 2006, the league has had four teams advance to at least the Sweet 16, making them the only non-BCS conference 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.

-- 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.

-- 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.

-- 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 highly seeded, they also have the potential to not make it out of the tournament's opening weekend.

If Wichita winds up pulling a 2013 Gonzaga on the big stage and gives 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 in 10 years to run the table in the regular season.

This is a time for appreciation, not prognostication. It should go without saying, but the undefeated team that went to the Final Four last season has been awfully impressive.

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