An increasingly popular debate in the world of Division I Men’s Basketball is the worthiness of Wichita State as one of the top five teams in college basketball. The Shockers are 27-0 and are one of two remaining undefeated teams.
However, the question that truly needs to be asked is where the Shockers should be among the top nationally ranked teams. Do they, as some ranking systems have suggested, deserve to be in the top five?
In this week’s HeroSports poll, Wichita State is 22nd in the nation, which is well below the rest of the teams in the Associated Press and Coaches Polls. How does an undefeated team miss the top 20 in the nation’s most comprehensive ranking system?
It is very clear that they do not deserve to be in front of Syracuse nor Florida, both of whom hold the top two spots in each poll. It could be argued that the most accurate place for the Shockers in the Associated Press and Coaches Polls is fifth. Duke, with its body of work in the ACC, and Arizona, even with the loss to Arizona State, should both be just ahead of Wichita State. This week the RPI has the Shockers as the seventh-best team in the nation, which is lower by a few rankings.
Despite their undefeated record, Wichita State suffers from their low strength of schedule, which is #125. The nature of the Missouri Valley Conference this year is something that is beyond the control of the Shockers, and the quality of opposition the Shockers have played against has not brought light to a fair reflection of Wichita State’s true abilities. They are simply unproven against stronger competition.
The Shockers have only played seven games this entire season against HeroSports top 100 teams. Furthermore, the Shockers have only played two in-conference games against teams ranked within the top 50. These two games, against BR49 Tennessee and BR26 St. Louis, have hardly contributed to their ranking. The Shockers only won by nine points and five points in these games, respectively.
Wichita State has done a good job of taking everyone’s best shot in conference play and have found a way to gain results both home and away. When teams in the Missouri Valley Conference play the Shockers, this game is the equivalent to that lower-ranked team’s national championship game. Consequently however, playing lesser skilled teams has had a negative effect on the margin of victory for Wichita State, as they have not consistently beat the point spread, especially on the road.
Compared to in-state rival Kansas, Wichita State’s strength of schedule is much weaker. The HeroSports polls have Kansas ranked at BR3, while the Coaches Poll and AP both have Kansas ranked at #8, under Wichita State. Despite a 19-6 record, Kansas is ranked higher due to their wins against quality teams and their strength of schedule, which is ranked at #1 in the nation. Every team they have lost to is in the top 50 in the nation, and they have lost by no more than 12 points (the highest loss to BR23 Texas on Feb. 1). In addition, Kansas has defeated 11 top 50 teams, including BR1 Duke, BR8 Iowa State and BR10 Oklahoma State.
Consistently playing against and defeating top ranked opponents elevates a team’s overall competitiveness. Wichita State has not played at that level this season, and will not face any highly ranked teams until March Madness.
The Shockers are projected to do well come March Madness, when they are finally able to play against teams at their level. They are planning on bringing back some very experienced players from last year’s Final Four run, including senior forward Cleanthony Early, Redshirt sophomore forward Ron Baker and sophomore Fred VanVleet. Early is an NBA caliber of a player; the kind of athlete a team needs if they are going to make a run at a national championship. Baker and VanVleet are very effective shooting from the perimeter, which keeps teams from being able to sit back and clog the inside against the Shockers. This ability to score from anywhere and the willingness play relentless defense are vital to succeeding in the NCAA Tournament. Overall, as a projected number one seed in the Midwest, Wichita State should most likely at least make a deep run to the Elite Eight if they get a great draw. The best chance to eliminate the Shockers will be early, either in the third round or the Sweet 16. If they survive that, they will become extremely difficult to knock out of the tournament.
Predicting the outcome for a team that has yet to prove itself creates a tough debate, one that will bring much attention come March Madness.