Let’s go back to Nov. 29, 2015. Wichita State has just lost its fourth game, only six games into the season. One of its two wins came against Division II Emporia State, the other over a lackluster Charleston Southern team. Its losses came at the hands of Tulsa, USC, Alabama and Iowa. After having been ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP top 25, the Shockers had stumbled to a 2–4 start.
Injuries will do that to you. Of those six opening games, senior guard Fred VanVleet played in just two of them. During the loss to Alabama, senior forward Anton Grady left the court on a stretcher after an injury to his head and neck area left him motionless. After starting the season ranked No. 15 on kenpom.com, Wichita State had fallen all the way to No. 47 and out of the AP top 25. Having already lost the majority of the big games on its schedule, it left the odds of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament (something the Shockers earned in three of the last four seasons) shaky.
Flash-forward to the present, and Wichita State has rocketed up to No. 12 on kenpom.com. It’s back in the AP poll, checking in at No. 21 on Monday. And it’s on an 11-game winning streak. Since the 23-point loss to Iowa (a loss that looks a lot better now given the Hawkeyes’ breakout season), the Shockers have picked up four top-100 wins, while also narrowly losing to Seton Hall on the road in overtime. They’ve opened up a 10–0 start in the Missouri Valley Conference, punctuated by a 13-point road win over Evansville on Sunday.
Wichita State is already 3–0 against its main MVC challengers, Evansville and Southern Illinios, and has a three-game lead for first place in the conference. At this rate, the Shockers may not even need to worry about the strength of their résumé in the battle for at-large bids, as winning the MVC tourney and its automatic bid to the Big Dance seems increasingly likely.
Because of its early season struggles, a potential Wichita State NCAA tournament team might be underseeded relative to its true ability. It certainly wouldn’t be the only team in the tournament that could be described that way, but make no mistake—a high seed is not going to be happy if Wichita State ends up standing between it and the second weekend. Why? Because the Shockers, now healthy, are a very dangerous team. They have a top-10 defense. They’re led by two first-team all-MVC senior guards who have played in the Final Four. Last year, they knocked off No. 2 Kansas in the Round of 32.
Wichita State has been one of the most consistently good mid-major teams over the last few years and now those aforementioned guards, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, have one last chance to add to their Shockers legacy. Baker leads the team in scoring with 14.4 points per game, while VanVleet, who returned to the lineup on Dec. 5, adds 13.4 ppg and 5.3 assists. In Sunday’s win at Evansville, VanVleet poured in a season-high 32 points on 8-of-18 shooting, making all 15 of his free-throw attempts.
Each averages 1.8 steals per game, helping to anchor a defense that is holding opponents to 0.90 points per defensive possession, good for No. 10 in the country. When playing at home, its D-PPP jumps to 0.82—the No. 1 unit in the country in that category. The Shockers’ defensive turnover percentage and defensive offensive rebounding percentage are both top 10, according to kenpom.com, and they rank No. 15 in defensive steal percentage.
Wichita State isn’t without its flaws, however. It could really stand to improve its FTA/FGA, where it falls among the bottom five teams in Division I. That means opponents are getting to the free throw line far too often, and sure enough, Evansville (a team that excels at getting to the line) exploited this in Sunday’s loss, shooting 38 free throws. To be fair, the Shockers weren’t particularly strong in this aspect during their Final Four season in 2012–13 (158th in the country), either, though they also weren’t as bad.
For as good as its defense is, Wichita State could also use improvement when guarding the perimeter. Opponents are shooting 35.6% from three, making the Shockers the only top-10 team in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency to rank outside the top 100 for three-point percentage defense (they rank No. 234).
With its recent play Wichita State seems well on its way to its fifth straight NCAA bid, but conference tournaments can be unpredictable. For as good as the Shockers have been in recent years, they’ve only won the MVC tourney crown once over the last four seasons—and they went 35–1 the year they did. While a lot can happen on the bubble between now and conference tournaments, Wichita State has climbed back into the at-large picture. It currently sits at No. 32 in RPI, No. 12 on kenpom.com and if it keeps rolling, it will be very hard for the NCAA committee to keep the Gregg Marshall-led squad out, MVC tournament title or no.
Player to Watch: Santa Clara junior guard Jared Brownridge
Brownridge first made waves this season when he scored 44 points in a narrow overtime loss to Arizona on Thanksgiving, nearly leading his team to an improbable victory. He’s averaging 20.0 points per game on the season and shooting 40.4% from three, leading his team in points, minutes, free-throw shooting, three-point shooting, steals per game and efficiency. In the Broncos’ road win at Portland last Saturday he poured in 38 points and shot 7-of-11 from behind the arc, his third 30-point game of the year and his fourth game of hitting at least seven treys. Santa Clara may be down in the WCC, but Brownridge worth watching any given night.
Game of the Week: UNC Wilmington at Hofstra, Thursday at 7 p.m. ET
The CAA is ranked ninth out of all 32 conferences in Division I on kenpom.com, and if it holds it would be its highest finish since 2002. The CAA currently has four top-100 teams, after finishing with zero in each of the last three years. Two of those top-100 squads are Hofstra and UNC Wilmington, which currently sit atop the conference at 8–2 (the other two top 100 teams are William & Mary and James Madison).
The game against the Seahawks starts a brutal three-game stretch for the Pride, which follow up Thursday’s game with road games against James Madison and William & Mary. It’s imperative for Hofstra to grab the win at home before hitting the road, while UNC Wilmington has a chance to separate itself atop the CAA with a key road win.
Stat of the Week: 2
Wyoming committed only two turnovers in its Jan. 30 win over Colorado State, joining a select group of teams who have only lost the ball twice in a game this season and likely drawing the envy of just about every other coach in America. The others to accomplish the feat this year are Iowa, UNI, Saint Louis and Cal Poly, according to bbstate.com. When you have double the amount of steals as turnovers, as the Cowboys did against CSU, that’s usually a good formula for winning the game.