Shockers at-large stakes too close to call

Nick Beach

Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet showed some serious enthusiasm after a long-distance three-pointer against Illinois State on Saturday. His team was in the midst of a 27-9 run over the Redbirds. VanVleet flexed in front of the crowd as WSU took a commanding lead on the second-best team in the conference.

The Shockers were victorious, rolling over the Redbirds with a 16-point margin. They previously had won the four games leading up to Saturday by an average margin of 29 points, since the three-point loss to Northern Iowa on Feb. 13.

Saturday’s finale left Wichita State victors of their third straight MVC title; they finished with a four-win lead on the rest of the conference. The locker room celebrated in delight from their victory, but VanVleet, the MVC Player of the Year, questioned whether or not he had done enough to solidify an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in March.

“We’ve got bigger and better goals we’re all passionate about,” VanVleet said. “Our objective as a team is not leave it up to [an at-large] and go win St. Louis.”

The Shockers ended the regular-season with 23 wins, but is it enough to land them an at-large bid come NCAA Tournament time?

WSU can secure a spot in the field of 68 if they win the Arch Madness tournament this weekend, but with tough conference opponents, it’s anything but a guarantee.

Comparatively, the Shockers earned an at-large bid last season, after falling to Illinois State in the semifinals of the MVC Tournament. They entered with a 27-win record. In 2013 they earned an at-large with 26 wins, after Creighton routed them out in the MVC title game.

“I think we’ve got to be in the tournament,” Gregg Marshall said. “It’s crazy if we’re not. I know we’ve done what we can do at a very high level.”

WSU has the opportunity to collect win No. 24 on Friday against the winner of Bradley vs. Loyola, both teams they have swept this season. The Shockers defeated Loyola by an average of 24 points and Bradley by an average of 30.5 points this season.

Though things get interesting in the second round. If Wichita State advances to Saturday, they will face the winner of Southern Illinois vs. Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa defeated WSU in Koch Arena less than a month ago. In the month of February the Panthers have a record of seven wins and a single loss.

The Shockers defeated Northern Iowa on their home court in January, but this game could go decidedly either way.

If Wichita State advances to the championship Sunday, they’ll have a record of 25 wins. currently lists the Shockers as No. 7 in RPI and listed the No. 23 strongest nonconference strength of schedule. It’s easy to think 25 wins would be enough, but no one will be able to breath easy unless the Shockers reach that mark.

The early-season win against Utah is now pivotal in writing the story for March; Utah is currently listed as a potential four-seed according to most Bracketologies. The Shockers defeated the Utes by 17 points. Utah, with a 12-5 conference record and a 2-1 record over ranked-opponents, speaks in favor of Gregg Marshall’s group.

Yet the Utes are the only victory the Shockers hold of any opponent ranked in the top 50, where they have a 1-5 record.

WSU has four top-100 victories, three of which were opponents ranking in the 90s. But four of the seven losses came with VanVleet injured, something the committee should consider.

Earlier last week ESPN’s Joe Lunardi tweeted stating, “Yes, Shockers are a lock.”

But it’s no safe bet.

Something has switched in the WSU locker room; they’re creating a highlight reel on opponents as they’re blowing them out. It’s a big statement, but is it big enough?

The biggest thing Wichita State could have going for them is their name. It’s a familiar one that slides around the NCAA Tournament committee’s office, and it won’t easily be finding its way out. 

Wichita State has too much to show. Fans should consider them a lock for the big stage come March 13.