The Wichita State Shockers love hearing all the criticism.
Wichita State compiled a 34-0 this season, becoming the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated in 23 years. But the Shockers, despite earning the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, have attracted criticism because of a schedule perceived by critics as soft.
However, the Shockers are trying to use that criticism to their advantage. It fuels them to stay edgy and angry, and to remain the hunters, rather than the hunted.
“Thanks for all those who have helped us along the way,” associate head coach Chris Jans said to USA Today. “But a special thanks to the haters because you have motivated us even more.”
Wichita State’s signature win came from topping then-No. 10 Saint Louis. That’s their only game against a top 25 team.
The Shockers’ strength of schedule is No. 96 in the country, and they have only beaten two other teams (BYU and Tennessee) that are currently in the RPI Top 50. In Missouri Valley Conference play, the next-highest ranked team in the RPI is Indiana State, which sits at 75. After that, it jumps to Missouri State at 87. Following MSU, no other Missouri Valley team falls in the RPI Top 100.
The Shockers won most of their games by a comfortable margin, winning by an average of 15.9 points per game. Twenty-nine of the team’s 34 wins have been by double-digits.
“We're not flawless, our record is flawless,” said coach Gregg Marshall, who is one of the main candidates for national coach of the year. He led his team to the Missouri Valley Conference championship, their first since 1987.
But Wichita State showed in last season’s NCAA Tournament that they have what it takes to succeed in March. Despite entering the tournament as a No. 9 seed, the Shockers knocked off Pittsburgh, followed by wins over the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga and underdog La Salle. The Shockers defeated second-seeded Ohio State to reach the Final Four.
Those four wins made them the first No. 9 seed, and first team from the Missouri Valley Conference, to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The Shockers then fell to eventual-national champion Louisville in the Final Four.
This year’s squad includes a half dozen key players back from that team, including last year’s leading-scorer, Cleanthony Early. He leads the team again this season, averaging 15.8 points per game, after averaging 13.9 points last year.
Besides Early, three other Wichita State starters, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton, are averaging more than 10 points per game, providing plenty of scoring depth for the Shockers.
The Shockers don’t only have scoring depth. They outrebounded their opponents by eight per game this season, and have five guys with at least 20 blocks. The club’s top top three scorers also shoot over 84 percent from the free-throw line.
Defensively, the Shockers enter the NCAA tournament ranked 11th in the Pomeroy defensive ratings, which measures how many points a team scores and allows per 100 possessions. It’s also adjusted according to opponent strength. Over the past six seasons, 75 percent of the Final Four teams have ranked in the top 20 of the Pomeroy defensive ratings, and the system is now regarded as the key to predicting potential Final Four teams.
“You can debate what you want to debate but facts are facts, truth is truth,” VanVleet said to reporters after Wichita State. defeated Indiana St. in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game. “We're not into debating how good or great we are or how bad somebody else. That's for barbershop talk and coffee table arguments. We're not into that stuff. If they feel that way, it's on them. And nobody that's arguing about it is on the selection committee.”
The Shockers open the tournament Friday against either Cal Poly (13-19) or Texas Southern (19-14). The winner of that game will then face the winner of Kentucky vs. Kansas State on Sunday. Kentucky entered the season as the No. 1 team in the nation.
While players and coaches say it’s been a fun ride so far, it’s been nearly 40 years since a team entered the tournament with a perfect record and went on to win the title (Indiana accomplished the feat in 1976).
“I want to win the whole NCAA Tournament,” Marshall said to Sporting News after the Missouri Valley title ceremony. “But you know what? If we don’t, there’s only going to be one. There are going to be 68 of us, and there’s only going to be one. We’re going to give it a great shot, and hopefully we can win the whole thing. But if not, it’s been a heck of a year already.”
Tournament Prediction: The Shockers can squeak into the Sweet 16, but a tough region will make it very difficult to advance beyond to the Elite Eight.