Why Wichita State is the most polarizing bubble team in history

Prepare yourself for the next seven days, because Wichita State is about to be subject to the most intense and debated at-large candidacy in recent memory.

Maybe ever.

There are very strong, legitimate arguments for, and against, including the Shockers in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Gregg Marshall has built a national power in Wichita, but this year’s team is no sure thing to reach the Big Dance after being downed on Saturday in the Missouri Valley semifinals by eventual league champ Northern Iowa. That was the second loss WSU took to UNI this season. The outcome dropped the Shockers to 24-8, which is two more losses than the program had in its previous two seasons combined.

As of now our bracketologist, Jerry Palm, has the Shockers out, third in line in the first-four-out category behind Michigan and George Washington. Other forecasters still have WSU in — and as a single-digit seed.

This is probably unprecedented. Sure there is annual disagreement on a few bubble teams. But those disagreements usually mean the difference between just missing the field or landing an 11/12 seed. With Wichita State, the dispute is gulf-like and based in the Shockers’ great modern-metric numbers being laid up against their severely lacking, traditional, RPI-based résumé.

About those modern metrics. KenPom.com is a leader in contemporary thinking when it comes to ranking college basketball teams; many believe it to be the gold standard of the ever-tricky task of actually laying out a 1-351 echelon. Here’s the deal. The NCAA’s selection committee has made a point in recent years of stating it’s become more adaptive in referencing KenPom, in addition to other reliable metrics like the Sagarin Ratings and KPI. (The idea being, the more information, the smarter the NCAA can become in accurately selecting and seeding the teams.)

If that’s true, Wichita State presents the ultimate litmus test for the committee. As of Monday morning, the Shockers are ranked 11th at KenPom. That standing not only suggests that Wichita State is undeniably one of the best teams in the country — but that there should be no debate about their inclusion into the field if we’re discussing the best at-large candidates.

“I think you have to watch us,” Gregg Marshall told CBS Sports by phone late Sunday night. “People who watch our team and know the game, they see that team right there, they could go to the Sweet 16, maybe the Elite Eight.”

Here’s what is on Wichita State’s side: No eligible team ranked 21st or higher in the 14-year history of KenPom has ever been left out of the NCAAs. Since KenPom began in 2002, here are the highest-ranked teams on Selection Sunday in each of those seasons on not to receive an at-large bid.

2002: South Carolina, 22nd
2003: Texas Tech, 35th
2004: Florida State, 25th
2005: Ohio State, 30th
2006: Missouri State, 28th
2007: Syracuse, 29th
2008: New Mexico, 31st
2009: San Diego State, 32nd
2010: Virginia Tech, 36th
2011: New Mexico, 38th
2012: Drexel, 39th
2013: Iowa, 33rd
2014: SMU, 32nd
2015: Florida, 45th

Notice the pattern at play. Almost every year since ’02, the highest-rated team in KenPom not to receive at an-large bid keeps falling lower and lower in the rankings. Over the past 14 years, the average ranking of the highest-rated snub: 33rd.

Wichita State is 11th.

It’s 24th in Sagarin and the Shockers are 37th in KPI and 40th the long-informative Massey ratings. The ever-helpful TeamRankings.com puts Wichita State’s chances of getting in at 45.3 percent. As for the RPI — which appears to be the overwhelmingly most important ranking, unfortunately — Wichita State sits at No. 47, which is the definition of “gray area” when it comes to the bubble.

The steady case against the Shockers is this: According to RPI-influenced strength of schedule, WSU played the 11th-hardest non-conference slate in the country (107th overall) … but went 1-4 against the top 50 of the RPI and 4-7 against the top 100. (If you are curious about Wichita State setting any records or trends regarding RPI numbers and selection, the answer is no but this is an illuminating collection of facts nonetheless.)

WSU’s only win against a team worthy of an at-large is an emphatic, 17-point home victory over Utah. The Utes are in position to possibly earn a No. 2 seed if they win the Pac-12 tournament. Without Utah, Wichita State doesn’t have a case.

And some believe that’s why it shouldn’t have a case anyway. I asked Jerry Palm, who’s done this for more than 20 years, to give me the closest possible comparison to Wichita State among teams that actually made the field. He said 2015 BYU, but added, the “biggest difference is that their one big win was on the road and in the league (at Gonzaga). Also, it came late. Last game before the conference tournament. I guess that’s another big difference. The WCC had two other tournament teams. St. Mary’s was at-large also. Wichita’s league this year has nothing. BYU’s other top 100 wins (last year) were St. Mary’s (tournament team), Stanford and UMass, so generally higher quality.”

The BYU team did get swept by average Pepperdine and lose at sub-.500 San Diego, though. The Shockers’ only truly bad loss this season came on the road against Illinois State, which is still a top-120 team in the RPI. WSU also took losses to Tulsa, USC, Iowa and Seton Hall — all teams currently projected to make the field. Tulsa will be tricky, because it could wind up having its résumé placed side by side with Wichita State’s. Tulsa’s 77-67 home win on Nov. 17 could be a deciding factor. It’s always hard to believe it then, but it’s true: November games matter. Marshall wanted this. He specifically tried to schedule as tough as he could, just as he should have.

Some believe Wichita State’s star-studded backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker means it should or will get favorable consideration based on past accomplishments. WSU made the Final Four when those players were freshmen in 2013, then went undefeated in the regular season in 2014, and beat two bluebloods (Indiana and Kansas) en route to last year’s Sweet 16. But the selection committee will only be evaluating Wichita State based on what it did from Nov. 13, 2015 through March 5, 2016.

“While it’s great what they do in one year, it doesn’t affect a selection in the next year,” committee chair Joe Castiglione said on CBS on Sunday. “We’re certainly well aware of the injury challenges they had early on. But I’ll say this: We’ve had teams that were the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament, and five of them have lost already. Each regular-season champion … gets placed under the under-consideration board, regardless of whether they win the tournament.”

Castiglione is referencing the fact VanVleet went down with a hamstring injury during Wichita State’s 0-3 stretch in November. And it wasn’t just VanVleet. Anton Grady missed the team’s loss at Iowa after being taken off the floor on a gurney. And a guy who’s the third- or fourth-best player on the team, Landry Shamet, has been out most of the season. But it’s important to note the Shockers don’t get free passes for losing those games, either.

“I think what’s giving us an opportunity this year is the fact our team is so well-known,” Marshall said. “We’ve got a couple of college basketball icons. … They know this core group is capable. But the problem is Fred was hurt when we played our four key games. I believe in all of my heart that we win against Alabama and Southern Cal if we had either of those guards eligible.”

Marshall said that in reference to not having VanVleet or Shamet. The Shockers lost by a total of seven points in those two games.

The Shockers are 1-5 against teams currently projected in the field. And it lost to Seton Hall, Illinois State and Northern Iowa twice with VanVleet in the lineup. Marshall made mention of VanVleet also being hurt in the Tulsa game, but the fact is the committee will evaluate Wichita State as being at full strength in the game because VanVleet opted to play.

“In our case we’re really focusing more than just the metrics,” Castiglione said. “We do try to quantify our decisions [with] the opportunity to watch games all throughout the year.”

Marshall pointed out the Shockers’ win over UNLV came at a time when the Rebels were 7-1 with wins over Indiana and Oregon — two teams that will receive 3 seeds or higher in this year’s bracket.

“Unfortunately our league has a lot of teams hovering around 80 to 120 in the RPI,” he said. “People go, ‘How do you lose to Northern Iowa? Northern Iowa is pretty damn good. The problem is Northern Iowa took a face-plant for about three weeks and lost four games in a row. … They’re going to give someone a major problem in the tournament.”

There is one more wrinkle to Wichita State’s situation this year. Jim Schaus is one of the 10 people serving on this year’s selection committee. He also happens to be the man who hired Marshall at Wichita State in 2007. Schaus is now the AD at Ohio. NCAA rules do not stipulate Schaus must recuse himself over a conflict of interest with this, but he does have the option to volunteer to step out of the room and take himself out of the equation whenever Wichita State is discussed. (There is a precedent for this: Bob Bowlsby, now the Big 12 commissioner, previously voluntarily recused himself in a similar situation in years past.)

Here’s a guarantee: The decision on Wichita State is going to be controversial no matter what. There are vocal parties on both sides of the aisle here, and so the cases being made for and against — in this case — are rooted in reality and sound logic. The selection committee has a very interesting debate ahead this week; I’d love to hear how this one shakes out. It’s been said this year’s bubble is the most inconsistent, uninspiring one perhaps ever. If that’s the case, should a team with a strong ranking be put into the bracket, or will the committee use history to reinforce its protocols and discard KenPom in the process? If it does that, we’ll have a reminder and more notably, proof: that it’s résumé first and team quality second that determines who gets into the best tournament in American sports.

Credit to Josh Whiteside, who helped confirm the KenPom statistics referenced above.

No matter what the committee does with Wichita State, it will send a big message. (USATSI)


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