Wichita State's incredible season falls short in NCAA Tournament

The Shockers' quest for perfection ended in heartbreaking fashion Sunday, but the loss to Kentucky shouldn't overshadow what an impressive season Wichita State had.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

The Wichita State Shockers were the darlings of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. They earned a No. 9 seeding as an at-large bid and stormed through the West region, knocking off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Their miracle run ended in the semifinals, when they came up just four points shy of beating the eventual champion Louisville Cardinals, but the future was bright in Wichita. The Shockers returned key players Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, and with the Creighton Bluejays bolting for the Big East, Wichita State was a heavy favorite to take the Missouri Valley crown. Many experts agreed that the Shockers would be a force in 2013-14, and the AP ranked them No. 16 in the preseason.

Few people predicted how much they would dominate, though. The Shockers finished with a perfect record, becoming the first team in Division I history to go 34-0 in the regular season. How did they go about doing it? Let's take a look at their season.

Non-conference schedule

Wichita State didn't have a lot of powerhouses on its non-conference slate, but it did end up playing five teams that moved on to the NCAA Tournament. The toughest test came on Dec. 1, when it went on the road to face the Saint Louis Billikens. The Shockers trailed at halftime and were down seven with less than seven minutes left, but used a 9-0 run to rally back and get the 70-65 win.

Other future tournament teams included the BYU Cougars, Tennessee Volunteers, Tulsa Golden Hurricanes and North Carolina Central Eagles. Wichita State rolled all four teams, winning each game by an average of 14 points. The Shockers headed into the conference schedule with a 13-0 record and No. 8 AP ranking.

Tearing through the Valley

There's no real way to sugarcoat this -- the Missouri Valley was bad this season. The Indiana State Sycamores finished in second place, and they were promptly bounced from the first round of the NIT. Creighton's departure left no legitimate challenger for the Shockers, and they had their way, racking up an 18-0 conference record. There were a few bumps along the way -- the Missouri State Bears took them to overtime in early January, and in February they eked out a pair of nail-biters over Indiana State and the Northern Iowa Panthers. Now here's the catch -- those were the only three conference games that the Shockers won by less than double digits.

Of course, with success comes doubters, and Wichita State gained plenty as it tore through a weak conference while barely breaking a sweat. Debate raged as to whether the team deserved to get a No. 1 seed or be ranked so highly in the polls. In the end, the results spoke for themselves. The Shockers cruised through the conference tournament to put a bow on their perfect season. They finished 34-0, the best start to a season since UNLV in 1990-91.

Heartbreak in St. Louis

Wichita State got its No. 1 seed, but the selection committee proved to be as skeptical as the pundits, placing the team in a brutal pod that included last year's champion Louisville, as well as the team that most people thought would be 35-0 instead -- the Kentucky Wildcats.

John Calipari put together a recruiting class hailed as the greatest since the Fab Five of the early 90s and Kentucky was No. 1 across the board in preseason polls. The Wildcats didn't quite live up to the hype, stumbling to a 22-9 record and becoming the first team ranked No. 1 in preseason to fall out of the AP poll entirely at the end. Still, they gave the Florida Gators a good game in the SEC Tournament final and always had the talent to make a deep run in March. The committee gave them a No. 8 seed, which would be by far Wichita State's biggest challenge of the season.

Both teams took care of their first opponents with ease, setting up the much-anticipated clash in the Round of 32. The game was thrilling from start to finish, with teams trading leads and knocking down incredible jumpers. Early was brilliant, scoring 31 points and draining 4-of-6 three-pointers. A game like this could only come down to the final possession, and with the Wildcats up 78-76, VanVleet threw up a three-point shot at the buzzer. It clanged off the rim, sending Kentucky to the Sweet 16 and ending Wichita's hopes of going 40-0.

Looking ahead

Before dancing on Wichita's grave and declaring the Shockers "exposed," it's important to appreciate just how hard it is to go undefeated in college basketball. No team has ever gone 34-0 before, much less 35-1. The last team to go undefeated start to finish and win the tournament without a loss was the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, who finished with a 32-0 record. Winning that many games in a row should be an accomplishment worth celebrating, even against poor conference opponents.

The Shockers should be in good position to win the conference again. They'll have to replace top scorer Early, who is graduating, but Baker and VanVleet are expected to return. Assuming coach Gregg Marshall doesn't get poached, look for Wichita State to be a prominent presence again next March.

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