NCAA-Bound? The Wichita State Debate

It's been, if nothing else, a very unique season in college basketball so far. As we talked about a month ago, this season is wide-open for the taking.

I will admit that since then, there's been something approaching a team to beat, and that team is Kansas. Playing in the cutthroat Big 12's double round-robin schedule format and against six surefire NCAA tournament teams, the Jayhawks haven't lost in six weeks. But they're still a more vulnerable "best team" than in many other years.

A month ago, I wrote that much of the top 25 in the KenPom ratings at that time had a non-zero shot at winning a title. I stand by that statement as we enter conference tournament week, and might even throw some teams not in that group, such as Wisconsin, Texas, Seton Hall, and Notre Dame.

One of the teams healthily in that KenPom top 25 is the Sunflower State's second-best team, Wichita State. Currently, the Shockers are No. 10, although that may come down a bit as major conference teams win games in their conference tournaments this week. With its two best players, seniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, boasting Final Four experience from 2013, and other members of the team being on a club that started 34-0 two years ago and a Sweet 16 squad a year ago, the Shockers are a huge force to be reckoned with in the tourney.

Now they just need to get selected by the committee.

After Wichita State lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the Shockers now have to wait until Selection Sunday to know if they'll even play on in the NCAA tournament. Most experts have them squarely on the bubble.

This is despite winning the MVC regular season title by four games and finishing 24-8 after the conference tournament. The Shockers beat every team in the MVC at least once, and have a marquee win against Utah, which looks better and better by the day.

But most importantly, Wichita State is 23-5 in games that VanVleet, the team's talisman and undisputed senior leader, played. And since a terrible, no good, very bad November that coincided with most of the time VanVleet missed, the Shockers are 22-4.

Furthermore, the four games lost by the Shockers since Dec. 1, all games VanVleet played in, came by a combined 17 points, with one in overtime to NCAA lock Seton Hall. In the Shockers' 17 conference wins, including the conference tournament, they won by 15 points or more 14 times. Two years ago, when Wichita was 34-0 headed into the NCAA tourney, they accomplished that feat just 12 times in 19 conference games.

The Missouri Valley Conference isn't what it was seven to 10 years ago, but it's still a strong mid-major league, and the Shockers were arguably stronger this season in league play than the last two years. Wichita State went a combined 35-1 in those two regular season conference campaigns.

This should be one of the most open-and-shut "controversial" bubble cases the committee has ever had to deal with. The goal, as far as solely picking the 68 teams to compete for the title, is that the committee picks the best 36 teams that didn't win their conference tournaments.

A healthy Wichita State is so far ahead of that marker that it's nearly comical. I'm not sure there will be 15 teams better than Wichita on Selection Sunday who didn't win their conference tournament.

In this space, I've been largely deferential to the selection committee before, and I don't envy the job the 10 people on the panel have to do. But if this committee doesn't think that Wichita State is one of the 36 best college basketball teams that didn't win its conference's automatic bid, it's abdicating its duty to have the best teams compete for the national championship.

The reason we're in this mess, where there's a chance the Shockers get left out, is because of the dastardly RPI. In that metric, Wichita State is down in the 40s, below a few fellow bubble teams and Princeton, who definitely won't be in the tournament after Yale clinched the Ivy League's NCAA bid Saturday.

Also, the Shockers have a mere 1-4 record against the RPI top 50, and are 4-7 overall against the top 100. In other words, by pure wins and losses against quality teams, the Shockers are hanging a whole lot on that Utah win in December.

Of course, the RPI only cares where the game is played, and who wins or loses. A one-point overtime win on a half-court buzzer-beater counts as a win all the same as a 50-point blowout against a lower-tier minnow. Now, you may think my insistence on using KenPom for analytics misses the point. However, metrics like KenPom actually measure performance, and not simple wins and losses, and do so at basketball's most distilled level of analysis, individual possessions.

When I've seen Wichita State on TV this year, which is a probably few less times than the committee has, I've been impressed. They've looked much, much more like the No. 10 team in the nation than the No. 45 in the "eye test."

There is a silver lining. The committee has indicated that it doesn't just take into account RPI as its main metric to compare teams by anymore, and that it does look at Sagarin and KenPom. Wichita State ranks a little lower in Sagarin, but the team is around the top 25.

If the committee recognizes these ratings as more complete tools than the antiquated RPI, and recognizes how good the team has been with VanVleet at the point, the Shockers should be fine, and can compete for the national championship like they deserve.

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