Looking for a March Madness sleeper to emerge from the First Four? How about Wichita State from the South Region.
After his team lost to Northern Iowa on March 5th in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals, coach Gregg Marshall was certain his team would play in the postseason and hopeful they’d crack the NCAA tournament field.
“I coach these guys really hard, but I love them,” Marshall said after the five-point loss to the Panthers. “They're great kids. They're unbelievable representatives of our university and our city and our state, and they'll get back up off the mat. We're going to play. I hope it's the NCAA Tournament because frankly I think we can win several games in the NCAA Tournament.”
We’re about to find out.
The selection committee took VanVleet’s injury under consideration, rewarded Wichita State for its 21-3 record when he was in the lineup and placed the squad in Dayton to fight fellow bubble straddler Vanderbilt for the region’s No. 11 seed and a chance to play No. 6 Arizona.
This isn’t your average, ordinary plucky program from a mid-major conference.
VanVleet and backcourt mate Ron Baker completed the regular season unbeaten in 2014 and earned a No. 1 seed. The year before they reached the Final Four - becoming the first Missouri Valley Conference squad to get there since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the championship game in 1979 - and lost to eventual national champion Louisville by four points.
They racked up another 30 victories last season, defeated Indiana and Kansas in advancing to the Sweet 16.
The seniors are 7-3 in the NCAA tournament and confident.
“Everybody knows it’s been a long week of not knowing,” VanVleet told Kansas.com last night. “We all felt good about it, but you never know. Everybody’s mood was they just didn’t care about where, when or how, Tell us we’re in there and we’ll show up and play anybody.”
So, how did they end up waiting nervously to see if they’d earn one of the last spots in this season’s 68-team field?
Like most mid-majors, the Shockers best opportunities to gain resume boosting victories occurred in November and December. Their recent outstanding seasons earned the program a spot in the loaded Advocare Invitational tournament at Disney World on Thanksgiving weekend. Without their floor general unavailable, the experience was worse than waiting two hours to hurtle down Space Mountain, only to reach the entrance and find the ride closed for maintenance.
Wichita State lost to Southern Cal by three points, Alabama by four points and Iowa by 23 in Orlando. Toss in road losses to NCAA tournament teams Seton Hall and Tulsa (plus an impressive win over Utah, the No. 3 seed in the West) and the Shockers were 6-5 entering conference play.
Nothing bad happened in MVC action. Two of the Shockers’ three losses since Dec. 19th came against Northern Iowa, which beat North Carolina earlier this season. Altogether, seven of Wichita State’s eight losses were handed out by NCAA tournament teams and five were by five points or less.
And now, despite the Valley disappointment, the Shockers are poised to make another run through March.
They are obviously experienced, but also deep. Nine players average at least 15 minutes per game. Baker leads the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and VanVleet contributes (12.0 ppg and a better than 3:1 assist-turnover ratio. Having quality guard play is essential in March.
Wichita State also enters the tournament as the nation’s best defensive team, per KenPom.
The Shockers held opponents to 0.89 points per possession this season by following a dependable blueprint for success at that end. They are top 10 in the nation in forcing turnovers (23 percent of possessions), effective field goal percentage defense (44.5) and defensive rebounding percentage (76 pct.).
Long range shooting has been a problem at times (Wichita St. was 2 of 24 beyond-the-arc in the MVC loss to Northern Iowa). If a reasonable percentage of those shots fall, the Shockers could wreak havoc on the South Region.