Could Wichita State run the table in conference play? An answer could come this week.

Wichita State’s biggest tests, statistically, come this week. Their calendar for March could be secured with two victories.


Manny De Los Santos

Junior forward Darral Willis, Jr (21) high fives fans prior to the game against Drake Wednesday night at Charles Koch Arena. (Jan. 4, 2017)

It’s never too early to start thinking about March.

When Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun washed Wichita State out of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last March, the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee bought into the storyline of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, who each led active players in the nation in NCAA Tournament experience last season, with enough sympathy to throw them a spot in the field of the nation’s 68 best teams.

So, with the feel good storyline gone and away, could Wichita State enter the field should any mishaps happen in St. Louis in March?

Three of the last four seasons, Wichita State has entered the Tournament without winning their conference tournament. Could they make a case for a fourth at-large in five seasons?

Don’t hold your breath.

Consider this:

Washpun put Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament last season on a last-second finger-roll, ousting a talented Evansville team. If Washpun’s shot doesn’t fall, Evansville is in the field through the automatic and the committee then looks at Northern Iowa, who finished a step ahead of WSU defeating them twice in a matter of weeks as the MVC’s only at-large bid. UNI also boasted a higher non-conference RPI and overall strength of schedule, which qualified them a notch above WSU. The Shockers then search for another tournament destination.

This year isn’t the same roller coaster season.

The Shockers have yet to be ranked in any national polls, though they have received votes for a few weeks.

Kenpom, a system that ranks on statistical categories, ranks Wichita State at No. 23 in their latest rankings. And this is maybe a little generous.

Gregg Marshall’s team has had three shots at defeating top-50 rated teams. The result is the Shockers’ lone three losses of the season.

A burdening loss to Oklahoma State in a Shocker-filled game in downtown Wichita didn’t help. And Oklahoma State’s six consecutive losses only worsened the heartache.

Wichita State’s RPI, up three spots to No. 92, isn’t gleaming. That spot probably won’t nudge much in a positive direction no matter the results of the rest of the schedule.

Six of the Shockers’ MVC opponents rank within 139-199 in the latest RPI rankings. Bradley falls outside the top 200 in RPI. Drake slides outside the top 300.

There’s not moving up to be done for Wichita State unless a lot of the top shifts downward.

The positive, however, is college basketball is incredibly unpredictable. Two days into the week have three top-25 ranked teams who have already lost.

If the Shockers were to wipe away any insecurities and consider themselves a lock for the tournament, they’d have to run the table.

They’re not far off. The Shockers are blowing out MVC opponents, and doing it with platoons. Ten Shockers average playing time in double-digits.

So, if the need is to run the table, could Wichita State do it?

Yes. There’s no counting out a team that’s off to a 4-0 conference start and victors of six straight — especially when you consider that they’ve won 92 percent of conference games since 2013.

Before you look to March, fix your eyes firmly on this week’s calendar.

The Shocker faithful will no much more to this answer come Saturday afternoon when the Shockers travel to face Illinois State.

The Redbirds are rated the second-best MVC team, behind the Shockers, in KenPom’s ratings at No. 51. They rank No. 24 in defensive efficiency. Wichita State isn’t far behind, ranking No. 31 in the same category. WSU also is a step better, statistically, at out-muscling the Redbird’s defense, for they rank No. 30 in offensive efficiency.

In RPI, Illinois State leads the Shockers at No. 54 — the only other MVC team aside the Shockers to rate in the top 100.

If Wichita State blasts the Redbirds on Saturday, escaping a team that holds a perfect 8-0 record at home this season, they should be on the fast track to cruise through conference play.

Loyola (Chicago) is the only other MVC team rated inside the top 120 of KenPom, ranking 113. They’re outside the top 150 in RPI. The Shockers host them Wednesday. The Ramblers play host on Feb. 12.

While few start thinking about NCAA Tournament résumés before late February, the Shockers may need to start thinking about their own in January; running the table may be all-but-essential to reach the field of 68. Statistically it may come all-too-easy.