clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What will the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee do with Wichita State?

Wichita State has won seven NCAA Tournament games in the past three seasons, and seems to be good enough to win six this season. Still, the Shockers aren't quite a lock to make the big dance at all.

Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

In a season defined by uncertainty and confusion, Wichita State makes perfect sense.

On the surface, the Shockers are a dominant mid-major team whose presence in both of college basketball's major human polls is a bit befuddling. This is a squad which finished dead last at the AdvoCare Invitational tournament in November, losing three games in four days to USC, Alabama and Iowa. It's also a squad which took non-conference road losses to the good, but certainly not great, duo of Tulsa and Seton Hall. With less than a month to play in its regular season, Wichita State owns just one victory over a top 50 RPI opponent.

With all this being the case, it's a bit strange to see this team with an NCAA Tournament bubble resume being labeled by Las Vegas as the 12th-most likely team in the country to be cutting down the nets in two months. Strange, that is, until you hear the explanation.

Of Wichita State's five losses, just one (at Seton Hall) came with point guard Fred VanVleet playing anywhere near full strength, and three came without him playing at all. The senior star was dealing with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss all of the AdvoCare Invitational and left him noticeably limited when he was on the court in November and December. For those who haven't seen VanVleet play at any point over the last four years (I can't imagine why you would be reading this if that's the case), the Shockers playing without their point guard is sort of akin to My Morning Jacket taking the stage with someone filling in for Jim James; sure, it could still be a good show, but the possibility of it being great is gone before the opening act even gets started.

Since VanVleet's full return, the Shockers have been decimating opponents in the ultra-competitive Missouri Valley Conference at an almost unheard-of rate.  They are 11-0 in conference play -- with a full four-game lead over four teams that are currently tied for second -- and have won a game by less than double digits just once, a 67-64 triumph over Evansville on Jan. 6. Their eight wins since that game have come by an average of 20.5 points.

This type of dominance isn't supposed to happen in the Valley, where parity had reigned supreme up until the start of Gregg Marshall's current run of terror. Before the Shockers achieved the feat two seasons ago, no team had ever made it through the an MVC regular season with a perfect conference record. Just two teams in the last three decades had finished Missouri Valley play with fewer than two league losses, and only five had finished with fewer than three.

Going back to the 2013-14 season, Wichita State is 47-1 in regular season games in the Missouri Valley Conference.

That level of dominance would be astounding for any program playing in any conference, but it's what the Shockers have been able to do on the stage beyond the Valley that has everyone in college basketball knowing that the VanVleet and company are one of the most dangerous teams in the country right now.

Heading into this season, the Shockers were riding a three-year run that had seen the program go 90-15, crash a Final Four, take out regional ruler Kansas on their way to the Sweet 16 and become the first team in 23 years to enter the NCAA Tournament with an unblemished record. With Marshall, VanVleet and fellow backcourt star Ron Baker all back for one more go, the preseason expectations were understandable. As are the postseason expectations now that VanVleet is healthy and the Shockers are the team we all believed they would be back in November.

Still, Wichita State is likely to present the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee with its most difficult task next month. Few would object to the notion that the Shockers are currently playing like one of the 10 or 15 best teams in college basketball right now. Their resume, however, suggests that this team can ill-afford to drop a game or two in conference play and feel good about its at-large bid chances. Current Bracketology forecasts on the major sports networks have Wichita as everything from a No. 6 seed to a No. 12 seed.

The Selection Committee has said in the past that they do take things like player injuries into consideration, but typically that situation pertains to a major conference team in the mix for a top four or five seed. Wichita State has the potential to be able to claim that it is 23-2 in games where VanVleet, Baker and Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp have all been healthy and available, but those 23 wins would still include just one against a team with any shot of earning an at-large bid to the tournament themselves.

The committee can't reasonably bump Wichita State up four or five lines higher than the spot their resume would place them and justify their actions after the release of the bracket by saying, "well, we know they're good." Or at least they're not supposed to.

The flip side of that coin is that if the Shockers wind up with, say, an 11 seed -- then this becomes a remarkably unfair situation for the No. 6 seed that they get paired up against, and potentially for the No. 3 seed that has to square off against them in the second round.

Wichita State is very, very good again. We know that. The fact that we don't have any idea what to do with that knowledge makes the Shockers the perfect representative for the 2015-16 season.