On Wednesday night, an unranked Power 5 conference team (Alabama), playing on the Shockers’ home floor, nearly handed Wichita State its second regular season loss of the month.
With no more Power 5 conference teams and no more ranked teams left on its schedule, it could be awhile before Wichita State even comes close to another loss.
Which means we should all get ready for another winter of wondering just what to do the Shockers on Selection Sunday.
It may seem like a long time until March, but this is a sport beloved for its unpredictability -- just ask Michigan (home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan), UConn (Yale) and Nebraska (Incarnate Word). But consider this most important lesson from No. 11 Wichita State’s thrilling 53-52 comeback win against Alabama on Tuesday night: The Shockers won’t go down easily.
The Crimson Tide appeared to have the game in hand, leading by 11 and possessing the ball with five and a half minutes remaining. But starting with a dunk by the Shockers’ Darius Carter, Wichita State scored 13 of the game’s final 14 points to avoid the upset. Carter punctuated the rally with another dunk to give the Shockers a one-point lead with 12 seconds to go. After Alabama’s Rodney Cooper missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, Wichita State secured its 39th win in its last 40 regular season games and improved its home winning streak to 23 games.
First, consider that the Shockers’ only two losses since the start of last season came in the NCAA tournament to Kentucky, the eventual national runner-up, and to No. 14 Utah in overtime. Then consider the notable gap in talent and experience they should hold over the rest of their competition until the brackets are revealed on March 15. Given that, it isn’t hard to image that, even if Wichita State can’t replicate last year’s undefeated regular season, it might be able to do the next best thing.
Its lone remaining non-conference game is against 3-5 Loyola Marymount on Monday. Then comes the 18-game Missouri Valley Conference schedule. Only two other league teams -- No. 31 Northern Iowa and No. 89 Illinois State -- even entered the day in the 100 best teams in the nation, according to kenpom.com.
The Panthers’ best showing might have been their only loss, which came in double overtime last Saturday at VCU. They figure to be the most realistic threat to a second straight undefeated MVC season for Wichita State. If Northern Iowa can keep the game close, Wichita State might just beat itself from the free throw stripe, as the Shockers almost did on Tuesday. They make just 63 percent at the line and were a miserable 8 of 17 against the Tide.
If another team is looking for a way to beat the Shockers, it will have to do for 40 minutes what Alabama could only manage for 35: limit Wichita State’s backcourt, don’t turn the ball over and take smart shots. In building their 11-point lead, the Crimson Tide held Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton to a combined 18 points (they entered the game averaging 42.5). They also committed only seven turnovers and shot better than 50 percent from the field.
But in those fateful final five minutes, Van Vleet and Baker – both of whom are All-America candidates – finally put their stamp on the game. Both scored an and-one that energized the crowd at Charles Koch Arena (Van Vleet missed his free throw) and Baker grabbed a huge offensive rebound to extend a key that ended with a Rashard Kelly jumper. Van Vleet forced a critical turnover that led to a basket and assisted on Carter’s game-winning dunk.
Add to that four turnovers by Alabama and 0-for-4 shooting down the stretch – plus a missed free throw by senior Levi Randolph, a 90 percent shooter at the line – and the Crimson Tide will head back to Tuscaloosa having given a win away.
This loss will sting Alabama for months. It would have been not just its best and only signature win of this season to date but also would have given the Tide the an impressive road win over a ranked team that will be hard to find in the watered down SEC, which at the moment has as many ranked teams (one, top-ranked Kentucky) as the Missouri Valley.
It is also yet another reminder of the struggles head coach Anthony Grant has had getting Alabama back on the national radar. Grant, now in his sixth season, is 2-26 against ranked teams, according to Stats Inc., a list that does not include a loss to a ranked Creighton team in the 2012 NCAA tournament, which remains the only game Grant’s Alabama teams have played in the Big Dance.
The Crimson Tide are left wondering what wins they'll need to get to the NCAA tournament while the rest of us will wonder which losses could keep Wichita State out.