By Paul Suellentrop
Tribune News Service
Last season, it was Kentucky. This season, it is Kansas that's a strong possibility. The NCAA selection committee keeps giving Wichita State imposing third-round matchups.
And all the Shockers must do to face the Jayhawks is get past Indiana on Friday in Omaha.
It isn't often that a game with the Hoosiers is seen as a side dish. The potential mania that would grip the state of Kansas on Sunday is one such scenario. In the fine tradition of matching Kentucky-Louisville, Dayton-Ohio State, Charlotte-North Carolina and Tulsa-Oklahoma State, the selection committee delivers the possibility of a game avoided in the regular season, agitated for by fans, and destined to bring out the best and worst in passionate supporters.
WSU (28-4) earned a No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region, an assignment that seems a less-than-fitting reward for a team with a No. 17 RPI -- a sentiment KU coach Bill Self agreed with at his Sunday news conference. The weakness of the Missouri Valley Conference hurt the Shockers, who played one team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI in January and February, splitting with fifth-seeded Northern Iowa.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall declined to complain, publicly at least, about his team's spot in the bracket. Wichita State didn't make players available for interviews after Sunday's NCAA Tournament announcement, a hedge against questions overlooking 10th-seeded Indiana (20-13) to get right to the possible matchup with second-seeded Kansas on Sunday at CenturyLink Center. The Jayhawks (26-8) play No. 15 New Mexico State (23-10), which won the WAC Tournament on Saturday.
Should fans of either WSU or KU feel like looking past Sunday, the Midwest Region also contains No. 1 seed Kentucky, Big Ten runnerup Maryland and coach Mark Turgeon as a No. 4 seed, and ACC Tournament champion Notre Dame as a No. 3 seed.
"I don't dwell on (seeding) too much," Marshall said. "We went to the Final Four as a (No. 9) seed. I do think our region is tough. That's kind of like last year's gauntlet."
Of the four No. 6 seeds (Butler, Xavier, Providence and SMU), WSU owned a better RPI rank than three. Those teams averaged 6.2 wins over top 50 opponents. WSU went 2-2.
Marshall focused his answers on the accomplishment, lest it be forgotten that the Shockers landed an at-large bid for the third time in four seasons. The Shockers are in the 68-team field for an unprecedented fourth straight time.
"Despite the criticism we get from our scheduling ... the schedule is good enough," he said. "That's the goal. We have to schedule well enough and play well enough in that non-conference to put yourself in position. We've done that."
Marshall started his preparations for the Hoosiers by naming J.R. Simon to portray Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell and Ria'n Holland to portray James Blackmon for the scout team. Indiana is one of the nation's most efficient offenses, ranking No. 10 in Ken Pomeroy's stats by averaging 1.16 points per possession. The Hoosier rely heavily on the three-pointer, with Ferrell making 40.8 percent and Blackmon 38.7 percent.
On defense, Indiana allows opponents to make 45.5 percent of their shots and 71.4 points, worst in the 14-team Big Ten. The seventh-seeded Hoosiers defeated No. 10 Northwestern 71-56 before losing to second-seeded Maryland 75-69 in the Big Ten Tournament. Indiana allowed those opponents to make 11 of 26 three-pointers and forced 20 turnovers.
After the news conference, Marshall started his scouting work. WSU uses Synergy Sports to archive games from most schools around the nation. While it was a challenge to find video on Cal Poly, last season's opening NCAA opponent, Indiana is easily available.
"It's an opportunity to play a storied program," Marshall said. "My computer is being loaded as we speak. No longer are we in the days when we have to call around and get some VHS tapes."
Indiana lost to Maryland on Friday. WSU has been off since March 7. Marshall wanted his players to rest and recover this week. Other than a sore hip suffered by senior Tekele Cotton, he liked the way his team looked during practices.
"The guys also needed to get their bodies healed," he said. "Hopefully, we'll have fresh legs come next Friday. That will be 13 days since we last played."
The Midwest Region is loaded with big names and power conferences, a circumstance which often brings out the best in the Shockers. The NCAA Tournament selection committee is giving them another chance to prove it can play with the nation's top teams.