‘There’s basketball gods’: Shockers sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble


Marshall Sunner

Wichita State freshman Tyson Etienne starts to drive towards the paint during the first half of the game against USF on Feb. 20 inside Charles Koch Arena.

From the moment he stepped foot on campus, Wichita State freshman Tyson Etienne stressed the importance of a Shocker return to the NCAA Tournament. From the moment players were made available to media at media day, Etienne pledged that the Shockers wouldn’t be heading back to the National Invitational Tournament.

We are a tournament team. And we are a deep tournament team.

Etienne’s pledge seemed to be coming true. Wichita State looked to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament come March. They started out 15-1 with a lone blemish coming to a now-nationally ranked West Virginia team. They rose to be the No. 16 team in America and were projected to be as high as a three-seed in the tournament.

Then they fell into a slump.

The Shockers have lost six of their last 11 games. At their highest, WSU was ranked No. 8 in the NET rankings. Now, the Shockers have free-fallen to No. 43. In one day, after an upset loss to Temple and their worst loss of the year to Houston, the Shockers fell 15 spots. They’ve also fallen to be one of the last eight teams in the tournament and are on the edge of potential fallout.

When asked if his team knew the importance of the last four games, Head Coach Gregg Marshall was blunt.

“You don’t think they know?” Marshall said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “Most of them can read. We had a 3.29 GPA in the fall. Academics and reading comprehension are not our problem. I think they know.”

Out of these four games, the Shockers have just one more game against a Quadrant I team — Memphis — which will go a long way on Selection Sunday if they win. The others, Temple (QIII), SMU (QII), and Tulsa (QIII), will be less of a factor. But at the end of the day, they have to find a way to win the upcoming games.

“Just win as many as we can,” Marshall said. “It basically comes down to that. We’re 20-7 now, no bad losses, we have to win as many of these games as we can. That’s what I keep telling them.”

With the Shockers now fighting for their tournament lives, the once safe team isn’t so safe anymore. Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s Bracketologist, always keeps in mind a team’s record against other potential tournament teams when it comes to Selection Sunday. Lunardi is now becoming worrisome of the Shockers, who are just 1-5 this year against potential tournament teams.

The lack of quality wins could end up coming back to hurt WSU. It’s two best wins according to NET — the main metric system the selection committee uses to pick teams into the tournament — are against Oklahoma State and UConn, both teams that aren’t projected to make the field of 64.

Wins against Oklahoma and Memphis hold less respect when it comes to the eyes of the committee. At one point this year, when Virginia Commonwealth was garnering national recognition, Marshall believed the win could end up being one of the best of the year for WSU. Now, the win against the Rams doesn’t look as impressive as VCU has fallen to 17-10 on the year.

The schedule, which appeared tough to start the year, isn’t helping the Shockers out at all. WSU has just the 89th hardest strength of schedule on the year, and their out-of-conference strength of schedule ranks even worse at No. 163 in the country. Their opponents average NET ranking is 153, and their average NET win is just 152.

But it’s not the Shockers’ strength of schedule that has Marshall worried. It’s the team’s maturity and toughness.

“Going into this year, I said this early and often. I really didn’t know [what to expect],” Marshall said. “As young as we were, and last year we won 17 until the postseason, so we’re a little bit ahead. I thought we would be better, but I didn’t know how much better.

“The things that I have questioned about this team early on were maturity and toughness and I still have questions about that.”

Marshall has the team he is going to finish this season with, though — there’s no changing that. Even through the recent struggles, the Shockers have yet to fall out of the bracket picture. But the team still has business to take care of, and it all starts with Thursday’s rematch against Temple.

Marshall said he hopes his team can get back to their winning ways against the Owls.

“I hope so,” he said. “There’s basketball gods, and sometimes those things even out over time.”

Etienne said the upcoming stretch will be revealing.

“It is going to show our character and our resiliency,” he said.