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How Wichita State became the last unbeaten

A weak schedule has little to do with the Shockers' success this year.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to try and discredit Wichita State's perfect start to the 2013-14 season.

The Shockers are 28-0, but are members of the Missouri Valley Conference. The MVC boasts just two RPI Top 100 teams and as a league is ranked 11th in conference RPI. Wichita State has also beaten only one team currently ranked in either national poll.

Still, the Shockers will likely be ranked No. 2 in the nation when next week's polls are released. They may even be No. 1.

So why should anyone put much stock in a record that's been bolstered against such underwhelming competition? Well, one could start by acknowledging that this same Wichita State team made the Final Four last year. Along the way, the Shockers beat Pitt, Gonzaga and Ohio State, then gave eventual champion Louisville all it could handle before finally falling in the National Semifinals.

This year's team returned leading scorer Cleanthony Early, and he continues to pace the Shockers in the scoring column. But his supporting cast has played just as big a role in Wichita State's success. Wichita State lost last year's seniors Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead, so Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have had to step up.

They've done that both on the stat sheet and in the clutch.

On Dec. 1, Wichita State was locked in a close one late against now-No. 10 Saint Louis. Baker and VanVleet were the ones who lifted the Shockers to victory.

VanVleet fed Baker for a layup to break a 64-64 tie with a minute to go. Then, after a basket from Early, VanVleet hit the clinching free throws to keep the Shockers unbeaten.

Later in the year against Missouri State in overtime, VanVleet was the one who scored five straight points to give Wichita State the lead for good and eventually ice the game.

The Shockers were in the position to win those games because of discipline and composure. They play smart. They don't beat themselves. As one Missouri Valley coach told CBS Sports:

"The best thing about them is that they're so disciplined, they're super solid. They don't make a lot of mistakes....They have a four-man who's really good, they don't turn the ball over, they challenge everything, and they don't miss assignments."

But for every coach heaping praise on Wichita State, there is a doubter, either in the stands or trolling the Internet. The Shockers are used to that. Their well-known mantra is "play angry," a phrase they adopted from their coach, Gregg Marshall.

Play angry because that's what it takes to win. Play angry because people call them overrated. Play angry for just about any other reason you could think of.

It's impossible to guess how the Shockers will compete against, say Syracuse or Arizona, until the NCAA Tournament comes and we get to see for ourselves. But we can see their toughness now. We can see how the players take on the intensity of their coach.

For now, that will have to do. Numbers can't tell the whole story and they can't put every team on an even playing field. But the best attempts at quantifying the talent of college basketball teams tend to place the Shockers pretty high. Stats guru Ken Pomeroy ranks them in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency and his formula has them as the 10th best team overall, even ahead of Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and Michigan State.

Pomeroy's system is, of course, far from perfect and it doesn't account for how a team will respond to a second-half deficit or to a bad game from a star player. To see that, you'll have to watch Wichita State for yourself.

They play clutch. They play angry. They play smart. And those are qualities that can get you far in March.

Just ask last year's Shockers.