ST. LOUIS — Wichita State’s streak of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances is in jeopardy after Northern Iowa eliminated the Shockers on Saturday in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals.
Wichita State is pretty clearly one of the best teams in college basketball. The Shockers rank No. 10 in KenPom with the nation’s most efficient defense and No. 20 in Sagarin . They will deservedly be a trendy pick for a deep NCAA Tournament run should they earn an at-large bid.
However, the Shockers’ resume in terms of wins, losses and RPI leaves their fate uncertain. They have a fine RPI that ranks No. 41, but teams with better RPIs have been sent to the NIT. (Just ask Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson about that.)
Wichita State defeated Utah (No. 8 RPI) at home for its only win against a surefire at-large team. The Shockers lost to at least four teams outside the at-large field: Alabama (No. 63 RPI), Northern Iowa twice (No. 87) and Illinois State (No. 120). They also lost to Tulsa (No. 45 RPI), which is another bubble team.
The second loss to Northern Iowa could be the backbreaker.
“If there’s a bubble, it’s a big one,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said, “and a lot of teams’ bubbles burst today. So maybe we’re one of them. I don’t know.”
However, one point of consideration Marshall discussed is that the Shockers were without star point guard Fred VanVleet, the MVC Player of the Year, for four games, and three of those resulted in losses to Iowa, USC and Alabama.
“I don’t want [VanVleet] to blame himself at all,” Marshall said. “The buck stops with me. We win as a team, but when we lose, it’s my fault. Unfortunately, when he missed those handful of games early, those were our marquee games. Those are the games that you have to win to get an at-large from a conference like the Missouri Valley.”
There’s no way of guaranteeing Wichita State would have won any of those matchups with VanVleet, but will the selection committee give any leeway considering the team’s efficiency numbers?
To no surprise, all the MVC coaches who have addressed the topic think Wichita State undoubtedly deserves an at-large bid.
Here is what a few Valley coaches have said.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson: “The tournament when Fred didn’t play, those games have to be looked at. My understanding is that the committee takes that into consideration. And outside of that, they’ve had the kind of year when Fred has been healthy, they’ve played like the team that should be in the NCAA Tournament, so I don’t think there’s any question that they get a bid.”
Loyola coach Porter Moser: “For sure. Fred makes a huge difference and he was out for those games. But to do what they do, to go in the Valley and to win 16 games in the Valley and do it when they attract the biggest crowd everywhere they go. There’s no question they should be in.”
The coaches, Marshall included, are focusing on VanVleet’s injury, but here’s the thing: the selection committee typically does not take injuries into consideration during the selection process, according to CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm. Palm says injuries only get considered when they are season-ending, and in that case it hurts the assessed team because the committee deems them less capable with the injured player no longer participating.
So, unless the committee breaks from its tendencies, Wichita State’s selection or snubbing will come down to the resume as it is, with and without VanVleet.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee says it has broadened its criteria to include advanced metrics, such as KenPom and Sagarin ratings, that have recently become part of mainstream college basketball culture.
This will be the ultimate test to see how much the selection committee actually values these numbers.
The Bracket Matrix, which aggregates all NCAA Tournament bracket projections to create a consensus field with seeds, currently have the Shockers as a No. 8 seed, but several bracketologists have not yet updated their projections since Wichita State lost to Northern Iowa.
Among some of the more noteworthy bracketologists, Palm had Wichita State as a No. 11 seed narrowly avoiding the First Four in Dayton prior to Saturday’s loss; ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had one of the more favorable outlooks before the upset with a No. 7 seed; KPI Sports, which has been updated, gives the Shockers a No. 9 seed.
The Catch and Shoot has also updated its projections and has the Shockers as the second-to-last team in the field, heading to Dayton as a No. 11 seed and facing Connecticut in the First Four.