It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these, and I really should try to write some more college basketball stuff as the end of the season looms. This article will mostly a breakdown of Wichita State, a team that is currently 8th in the nation on KenPom despite 7 losses and a very weak conference. Wichita State is not even ranked in the AP Top 25 right now, and it’s worth trying to figure out why. Although this is Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet’s last chance at a deep tournament run, the team has gone completely under the radar.
1. Wichita State has bad losses and no good wins.
This, by and large, is mostly true. The Shockers’ best win was an early season victory against Utah at home, which is a decent result, but not exactly an A-list victory. Meanwhile, Wichita State lost three straight to USC, Tulsa, Alabama and Iowa in non-conference play when star player Fred VanVleet was out with an injury.
Wichita’s State’s other three losses are to Seton Hall on the road in overtime, which is okay, and Illinois State and Northern Iowa, which does not bode well. As a result, even if Wichita State wins the Missouri Valley Conference (and it would be stunning if they do not), the Shockers are unlikely to get anything better than a 7 or 8 seed (Joe Lunardi currently has them as an No. 8 seed).
Both of Wichita State’s uncharacteristic conference losses were tough losses that Wichita State could rue later on, especially if they somehow get upset in the MVC Tournament. I’ll touch on those two defeats more later on, but those were both low-scoring grindfests in which Wichita State fell just short. Other than those losses, Wichita State has blown through conference play in recent weeks, as usual. Barring a repeat of last year’s stunning loss to Illinois State, Wichita State will probably not lose again for the rest of the season, which means the Shockers will submit a 26-7 record at the end of the season.
Again, that most likely leaves Wichita State with a tough matchup against a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. However, if I were the coach of the high seed in question (Bill Self and Roy Williams, I’m looking at you both), I would be absolutely terrified of playing Wichita State in the Second Round. Remember, this is the team that knocked off Kansas in the Second Round last year as a No. 10 seed. Wichita State is capable of beating any team in the country, and teams should try their best to avoid playing the Shockers if possible.
Wichita State is a very good basketball team and, in my opinion, a major cut above power conference teams like Michigan, LSU, Florida and Syracuse. Putting them as an No. 7 or No. 8 may be reasonable, but the Shockers will be an immensely popular Second Round upset pick, especially with a matchup against Maryland or Iowa, two Big Ten teams that have looked very shaky of late.
2. Wichita State’s Offense is Streaky
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At times, Wichita State’s offense has turned in some absolutely awful performances.Wichita State scored just 50 points at home against Northern Iowa and lost despite only allowing 15 points for the entire second half. That’s not ideal. Sure, the Shockers have had no trouble carving up bad defensive teams like Loyola Chicago and Missouri State, but they have yet to show they can consistently score against quality teams.
Wichita State was 16th in offensive efficiency on KenPom last season. This year, they are 58th. Interestingly, the team has almost the exact same eFG% as last season, but the improvement of offense across college basketball means that Wichita State has fallen 50+ places in that stat in 2016. Fred VanVleet has watched his two-point percentage fall from 46.1 percent in 2015 to 38.3 percent this year.
Luckily, Ron Baker has continued to be amazing, so the offense hasn’t been that awful when VanVleet is off. Baker has scored double figures in all of its last seven games, including the two defeats, and he has been more impressive than VanVleet in terms of consistency. Without Darius Carter, the Shockers’ offensive rebounding percentage has dropped slightly, and the team often relies on VanVleet and Baker to power the entire offense. Markis McDuffie chips in when he can, but Shaq Morris is a weakness at center offensively and the team just hasn’t been as efficient.
But when it’s working, Wichita State can score points effectively. If VanVleet gets going with Baker and McDuffie chipping in, Wichita State will be tough to beat, especially because of its incredible defense.
3. Wichita State’s Defense is Unreal
Wichita state is holding opposing teams to under 0.9 points per possession. That’s second-best in the country, and basically all you need to know about the Shockers’ defense. Having an offense that rarely turns the ball over helps, but Wichita State’s lockdown man defense has flummoxed opposing teams all season. If Wichita State loses, it probably won’t be because the defense has stopped functioning.
Shaq Morris may not be a fantastic offensive center, but him and Anton Grady have protected the rim effectively. Wichita State is able to field 7 above-average defenders on its squad, which makes beating its defense extremely difficult. Gregg Marshall has obviously advised his players to foul whenever possible, leaving Wichita State near the bottom of the country in terms of defensive free throw rate. Thus, Wichita State forces steals on 11.4 percent of opposing possessions. This has basically shut down the paint for most teams in the MVC, as repetitive fouling and tight defense has made driving on the Shockers rather difficult from halfcourt sets.
Of course, this should all be qualified by the fact Wichita State has been playing poor opposition for the last two months. Teams with better talent like Iowa and Seton Hall were able to burn Wichita State early in the season. But teams like, Indiana State, for example, could not get anything by penetrating to the basket and was forced to shoot 26 threes. It will be interesting to see how Wichita State’s defense holds up against guards who actually can take contact, protect the ball and score at the basket like Tyler Ulis or Grayson Allen, two possible matchups for Wichita State depending on how things go. I have a feeling that Wichita State can hold because VanVleet and Baker are so individually good on defense, but that remains to be seen.
If Wichita State wins the MVC Tournament, they will make the tournament. And I really hope the Shockers do win the tournament, because they’re a bubble team otherwise and I really, really want to see them in the NCAA Tournament, for narrative purposes more than anything. In a year that has seen an absurd number of surprises, it’s only right that the VanVleet, Baker and the Shockers get their shot at unexpected glory.
“Brevity is the soul of wit” Power Rankings
12. Iowa – Peaked too early, perhaps?
11. Indiana – They look solid and are in pole position to win the Big Ten. That road will go through Iowa on the road and Maryland at home, however.
10. Wisconsin – Won 9 of its last 10, with only loss coming to Michigan State on the road. They also beat Michigan State at home to start this run.
9. Duke – …I’m sorry for writing off Duke that early…I knew this would happen.
8. Kentucky – Not sure if this is where they should be, yet here they are.
7. Louisville – Well, they’re fighting bravely.
5. Oklahoma – That second half demolition at Morgantown shows this team is still extremely dangerous. As if we needed reminding (we kinda did though!).
4. Michigan State – Currently No. 1 in KenPom, but not No. 1 in my heart.
2B. Xavier – Can’t separate the two Big East teams right now. Both are very, very good.
2A. Villanova – Can’t wait to get disappointed in the tournament at some point, sadly. 1. Kansas – I guess they’re No. 1 by default. Now they’ll probably drop one of their three remaining games against Top 40 teams because that’s just how this season has been going.