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Let's tell the full story of Wichita State's undefeated regular season

The Shockers completed a 31-0 regular season slate this weekend, but their record alone doesn't give proper context to Gregg Marshall's team's accomplishment.

Peter Aiken

Wichita State is undefeated, the first team to stand unblemished after its regular season since 2004. Wichita State played a schedule largely free of the rigors of even the easiest schedule for a team in a major conference. Reconciling the two means dealing with some of the stickiest stuff about college basketball, and walking the line between praising a team for a rare achievement and losing all context for the achievement.

The Shockers are basically a lock to finish in the KenPom top 10 for 2014, sitting sixth and will become the fourth team in the KenPom era (which dates to 2002-03) to finish in the top 10 with a Pythagorean strength of schedule outside the top 100 as calculated, joining two mid-major monsters, 2003-04 Gonzaga and 2006-07 Memphis, and entering this dubious company with 2013-14 Louisville, about which more later. Those two teams also had slightly tougher schedules than Wichita State has had: Gonzaga's strength of schedule ranked 101st; Memphis's was 109th.

And they also, obviously, lost: Gonzaga, led by Ronny Turiaf, Cory Violette, and some freshman named Adam Morrison, lost its season opener to that unbeaten St. Joe's team and Stanford, two of the 2004 NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seeds, then not losing again after Christmas until tripping up against Nevada and failing to even make the Sweet Sixteen; the Memphis Do-Boys1 took three losses by Dec. 202, then won out until an Elite Eight loss to national runner-up Ohio State.

Wichita State, currently 135th in KenPom Pythagorean SOS and 100th in Warren Nolan's RPI SOS, couldn't pull together a non-conference schedule like the ones those Gonzaga and Memphis teams got because it lacks their name brands and regional advantages. Gonzaga played Stanford at ORACLE Arena rather than in a home-and-home series; Memphis, in the middle of John Calipari's renaissance, got to play Oklahoma, Georgia Tech, and Kentucky in the 2006 Maui Invitational, and also played Tennessee, which it plays yearly; Wichita got Tulsa and Alabama and the teams that would make geographical sense — Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri — were definitely uninterested.

Frankly, the most important reason Wichita State played such an "easy" non-conference schedule should be obvious: No sane basketball blue-blood would schedule the Shockers this offseason. The value proposition for other powers is: What good does it do us to play Gregg Marshall's rugged team, just off a Final Four berth, when we can either play a team our fans won't mind us losing to in a game ESPN will care more about, or a team we will definitely beat?

There was no benefit to taking Marshall's calls, and so they weren't picked up.

Wichita State returned the core of a team that made the Final Four and scared the hell out of 2013 national champion Louisville in it, a core that includes two or three future NBA players. Wichita State basically rolled snake eyes with its non-conference schedule except for a road game at Saint Louis, getting "marquee" games against BYU (in a mini-tournament), Tennessee, and Alabama (we meet again, Anthony Grant!), three teams that have largely disappointed in conference play, and do very little to help Wichita State's strength of schedule. Saint Louis is an NCAA Tournament lock, but BYU's barely on the right side of the bubble, Tennessee's even closer to it, and Alabama can't get in without winning the SEC Tournament, which is not happening.

The rest of Wichita's non-conference schedule? Teams like Western Kentucky, Tennessee State, Oral Roberts, and Davidson, little guys from mid-major leagues that play guarantee games against slightly better teams, not the truly big boys. To their credit, the Shockers avoided any truly horrendous games other than a season-opening game against D-II Emporia State, but also couldn't play the three-card monte that more established programs play with RPI by scheduling major-conference teams that pose little risk of staging an upset and a good chance of being spared embarrassing RPI numbers by bad conferences.

But this isn't a problem unique to the Shockers. 2010-11 Butler and 2011-12 VCU had the same scheduling problems off their 2010 and 2011 Final Four appearances, which is easier to forget because they never even flirted with perfection.

Butler — which got helped a bit by Gordon Hayward's early entry to the NBA Draft, something that helped weaken the Bulldogs' bite — compensated by taking no-win road trips to Louisville and Xavier on the front end of home-and-home series, and played a 2010 NCAA Tournament final rematch with Duke in New Jersey, a virtual home game for the Blue Devils. It also lost all three of those games, ended its run at an unbeaten year in the second game of its season, and went 6-5 to start Horizon League play, before turning in maybe the most improbable NCAA Tournament performance since Villanova in 1985. (For what it's worth, 2011-12 Butler, breaking in a lot of new faces, wasn't quite so scary even coming off two straight Final Fours, and had the back ends of its home-and-homes as ballast, so it didn't have the same scheduling issues.)

VCU had a Final Four pedigree and Shaka Smart's terrifying HAVOC press as black marks on its dossier when it came to scheduling, and so it ended up in the prestige-deficient 2011 Charleston Classic — where it lost to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech — and with marquee non-conference games against Alabama (coached by former VCU head man and non-con masochist Anthony Grant), South Florida, and Akron, not exactly murderers' row. The Rams went 25-6 in regular season play, losing three times in Colonial Athletic Association play, and beat Wichita State — naturally — in the NCAA Tournament in a diabolical No. 5 vs. No. 12 mid-on-mid game, but they actually had a less imposing schedule than 2013-14 Wichita State's, finishing 141st in Pythagorean SOS, and no one cared about that schedule because VCU was no threat to the ivory tower.

The difference for Wichita State is really the 2014 Missouri Valley Conference, and the zero in the loss column.

Wichita State is far and away the best team in the Valley. The next-best team in the Valley this season is either Indiana State or Northern Iowa, depending on whether you're going by record or KenPom, respectively. Indiana State's 21-9, but its best win is either a bad Notre Dame team or Northern Iowa; Northern Iowa is 16-14, and its best win, one over VCU, is also its only win over a team in KenPom's top 75.

Beyond those two semi-respectable teams, which would both be bottom-half teams in most major leagues, the Valley is brown, not green. Missouri State, the only MVC team other than Wichita State and Indiana State to be more than two games over .500 on the year, scored its only KenPom top 100 win in its second game of the season, against Tulsa3, and compiled its other 10 non-con wins in games against woeful teams like Grambling State, Hampton, Liberty, Southeast Missouri State, and D-II Cameron College. Illinois State, the fifth MVC team above .500, has three road wins this year; its best win is over Dayton, which sits some distance from the bubble. No other Valley squad is over .500, and the names you may know from March upsets — Bradley, Drake, Southern Illinois — are not attached to decent teams right now.

The Valley's not as good as Butler's 2011 Horizon League was, and is no better than on par with the 2012 CAA, which VCU did not even win in the regular season, thanks to a Drexel team that went 16-2 in conference play. Wichita State is also better than those Butler and VCU teams were, so the difference looks more dramatic.

And that's not Wichita State's fault. Creighton's flight for the Big East robbed Wichita State of a top-10 Valley rival this year, and Villanova can tell you all about how tough this Creighton team is; replacing Creighton with Loyola of Chicago is like wrecking a Lexus and deciding that a 1973 AMC Gremlin will get you to work just as efficiently. The rest of the league being down has very little to do with Wichita State being good, just like the SEC being relatively weak apart from Florida has little root in the Gators being good.

Wichita State's easiest path to accomplishing its national title goal this year, the one with the No. 1 seed and the slightly easier trek to Dallas that comes with it, required beating the crap out of the Valley. So Wichita State has beaten the crap and the pee out of the Valley — ironically robbing every Valley team of its best possible win in the process, and making its competition look even worse.

I think Wichita State did something tremendous in running the table. I think Wichita State is a legitimate national title contender; I don't have the Shockers No. 2 in my power rankings this week for nothing. And I think Wichita State deserves the No. 1 seed it will absolutely get, not least because the Shockers have won and won and won while every other major power, with the exceptions of Florida and Arizona, has lost.

But I also think Wichita State would have been a title contender with one loss, or two losses, or three, and I think adding context to the Shockers' accomplishment, even if that context makes their goose egg slightly less round, is less about disrespecting them than qualifying the respect. And I think rushing to venerate this team for its regular season, when Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker and the rest know full and well that their season is not over, is about playing up a compelling, easy narrative rather than complicating it.

Wichita State is undefeated, which is thoroughly impressive. How Wichita State came to be undefeated is interesting, too. Let both of those truths exist at once and intertwine, and you have one of the best stories of this college basketball season, no matter what happens next — but you also have a complete story.

  1. This is what I would've called a team with Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Robert Dozier had I been writing about sports in 2007, but I was a high school senior — yes, you are old — and so we were all spared that nickname.

  2. A great coincidence: Both 2004 Gonzaga and 2007 Memphis suffered the final regular season losses of their respective seasons on Dec. 20.

  3. Tulsa also has played Wichita State, Indiana State, and ex-Valley lodestar Creighton, gone 4-9 in non-conference play, used seven sophomores in its rotation ... and compiled a 13-3 record in Conference USA, giving it a decent chance at the NCAA Tournament.