Wichita State appears on its way to again polarizing many people who look at a projected NCAA Tournament bracket in February.
The Shockers, largely because of their schedule and margin of victory, are tough to categorize, similar to last season when CBSSports.com called them the “most polarizing bubble team in history.”
Polarizing or not, WSU backed up its spot in the field with two NCAA Tournament wins. They would like another chance this season.
By the RPI numbers, WSU is a borderline NCAA Tournament team. It ranks No. 47, largely because it owns one win over a team ranked in the top 100 — No. 33 Illinois State.
By other popular measurements, the Shockers are viewed as a team that should safely grab one of 36 at-large bids and be more concerned with seeding than worthiness.
Ken Pomeroy ranks WSU No. 16, as does Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ranks it No. 20. Those measurements, which are part of the information used by the NCAA selection committee, take into account factors such as margin of victory and efficiency per possession to highlight what the Shockers do well and lessen the effects of a weak Missouri Valley Conference upon schedule strength.
This is becoming an annual event for WSU. In 2013-14, the debate focused on their worthiness as a No. 1 seed. Last season, the argument focused on WSU’s inclusion after an injury-riddled non-conference performance weakened their resume. While Gonzaga’s unbeaten run may provide some cover for the Shockers this season, each win seems to strengthen their case, while also inviting more scrutiny and criticism.
The selection committee is charged with picking the “best” 36 at-large teams, which leaves open to interpretation how best to measure “best.” If it’s performance against other highly regarded teams, the Shockers are at a disadvantage. If it’s performance, they can be judged more charitably.
The disagreement shows in mock brackets. ESPN’s com’s Joe Lunardi seeds WSU No. 9 and rising. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm sees the MVC producing one bid, so he lists RPI-leader Illinois State as a No. 12 seed. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller has the Shockers a No. 11 seed. WSU is a consensus No. 10 seed in the brackets compiled by BracketMatrix.com.
“The MVC is down this season, so there is nothing left but chances for bad losses, and WSU cannot afford any of those,” Palm wrote. “The Shockers’ overall (schedule strength) is relatively poor also. It would have to be a really weak field for Wichita to get in with this profile.”
The Shockers (23-4, 13-1 MVC) play another one of those must-avoid-a-bad-loss games tonight at Southern Illinois (14-13, 7-7). They are used to playing under this weight, where any loss is seen as potentially disastrous.
“If we lose a couple of games, we could be out of the NCAA Tournament,” junior guard Conner Frankamp said after Sunday’s win at Loyola. “That’s our main goal, to get into the tournament and try to make noise.”
WSU and Illinois State, tied for first in the MVC, are also in the position of wanting the other to lose for purposes of the MVC regular-season title, while understanding that a loss hurts their rival’s at-large resume.
“Unless the committee views (WSU and Illinois State) as at-large worthy teams, both will go into Selection Sunday lacking a win against an at-large squad,” Beller wrote. “The softness of the bubble could help since both will likely be pushing 30 wins on Selection Sunday, but the bet here remains that the Valley is a one-bid league.”
A year ago, WSU was in a similar spot. Its RPI slipped to No. 52 after a home loss to Northern Iowa on Feb. 13. WSU coach Gregg Marshall wrote “NIT” on a whiteboard to remind his players of the stakes in the season’s final five games. All along, however, the Pomeroy rankings stayed strong with WSU in the top 20 all of February and peaking at No. 8 in early March.
The Pomeroy rankings looked accurate when the Shockers out-performed their No. 11 seed with a win over No. 11 Vanderbilt in a First Four game, then No. 6 Arizona.
Marshall said he doesn’t check Pomeroy or other rankings at this point in the season.
His focus is on the seven more wins (four regular season, three in the MVC Tournament) that would make an at-large bid unnecessary. His team’s improvement on defense is the latest development that is encouraging. WSU held its past seven opponents under 40-percent shooting, highlighted by Loyola’s 6-for-25 (24 percent) shooting performance in Sunday’s game.
“Our defense is really kicking in,” Marshall said. “When you hold Loyola, at home, to 25 percent in the second half, you’re doing something. Those guys are very skilled and very talented and they have a very good offense that they run with tremendous pace and they put shooters all over the court.”