Last Saturday, with a 68-45 win over Missouri State, the Wichita State Shockers became the first Division I team in 10 years to finish the regular season undefeated. The moment passed with only minor attention outside the Midwest. The Shockers don't play in a marquee conference, don't have a true superstar, and in 31 games they played just one team (Saint Louis) in the Top 25. You may remember what happened to the last team to finish the regular season undefeated, the 2004 St. Joseph's Hawks: They lost in their conference tournament and fell in the Elite Eight.
After following the Shockers for three games in February, I'm convinced they have what it takes to contend for the title. Here are five reasons why:
1. Their advantages are repeatable. This team does not depend on hot three-point shooting or one-man hero ball. How do they win? They outrebound their opponents by eight per game. They block twice as many shots as the other guys do. Their top three scorers shoot better than 84 percent from the free-throw line. And their point guard, Naismith Trophy semifinalist Fred VanVleet, dishes out four assists for every turnover. None of this is revolutionary. The Shockers keep passing and cutting until someone gets open. They don't dribble too much. They don't take wild shots. If all else fails, they drop it underneath to senior forward Cleanthony Early, who has a rare ability to absorb heavy contact and still put the ball in the net. The new block-charge rule favors tough scorers like Early. And even if he misses the layup, he's just put one of your big men on the road to foul trouble. The Shockers may not be spectacular, but their style translates well to the rough-and-tumble play of the NCAA tournament.
2. They share the burden. Early leads the team in scoring, but he also leads in fouls. That's part of the reason he averages fewer than 28 minutes per game. Nevertheless, in the three games I watched, the Shockers played admirably with Early on the bench. Reserve forward Darius Carter runs the floor extraordinarily well for a big man, and guards Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker increase their scoring when the Shockers need it most. At Northern Iowa, Early picked up his third foul just after halftime. Over a 12-minute span in the second half, he watched his teammates extend the lead by nine points. You need all the weapons you can get in the tournament, and the Shockers have nine players who can give them good minutes.
3. They get better as the game goes on. On average in the regular season, the Shockers were six points better than their opponents in the first half. And they were more than nine points better in the second half. In all three games I watched, the Shockers calmly pulled away in the final minutes while the other guys got tired and desperate. Why are they so strong at the end? Earlier this season, VanVleet said he has yet to play a game that was as tough as one of their practices. After I watched a practice at Charles Koch Arena in mid-February, I understood what he meant. The practice wasn't especially long, but the intensity was remarkable. Every basket in the full-court scrimmage seemed to carry the weight of a late-game three. All the coaches ran up and down the floor with the players, shouting coded instructions. They made so much noise that it felt like a real game, and the Shockers played accordingly.
4. They're more battle-tested than you might think. No, they haven't played any real heavyweights this year, but this is largely the same team that made it to last year's Final Four. The ninth-seeded Shockers beat eighth-seeded Pittsburgh 73-55, top-seeded Gonzaga 76-70, 13-seeded LaSalle 72-58, and second-seeded Ohio State 70-66 before losing 72-68 to Louisville in a game the Shockers controlled well into the second half. With the emergence of VanVleet and Baker, now sophomores, this year's team are probably even better.
5. The bracket will favor them. All this winning will give them a much easier path than they had last year. As a probable No. 1 seed, they can tune up against weaker teams before facing the stronger ones. Look for Early to raise his game as he tries to raise his stock for the NBA draft. Look for Baker to hit some deep threes and Cotton to throw down several poster-worthy dunks. Look for VanVleet to control the pace and the big-man trio to control the boards. The Shockers won't surprise anyone this time, least of all their biggest fans, Jon and Sheryl Markwell. Mr. Markwell, a retired Citigroup executive, has traveled more than 92,000 miles in the past five years to watch the Shockers play. Wichita fans travel well. Last August, Ken and Sara Horstmann booked a hotel room outside Dallas for the first weekend in April. If the Shockers keep winning, they will join the Horstmanns at the Final Four with a chance to become the first Division I undefeated champion since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.