Let’s jump ahead to March 20 and the NCAA Tournament because, well, every Wichita State basketball fan wants to.
Not that being unbeaten and ranked No. 3 isn’t a wild and satisfying ride. But we’re all dying to know how the Shockers will fare when March Madness rolls around.
So we’re going to use Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket projections on ESPN.com and figure out what lies ahead for Wichita State.
Of course you know Lunardi has the Shockers as a No. 1 seed. For now. He’s wavering, as he has stated. So are many other analysts. But for now WSU is a No. 1 in the Midwest (Indianapolis) region playing its second- and third-round games at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
First up? The winner of the first round (we used to call them play-in games before we were so worried about hurting feelings) game between Weber State and Utah Valley State.
The anxiety of this one isn’t about who the Shockers are playing, it’s about the number that goes with the team. Sixteen. As in a 16 seed, which has never knocked off a No. 1 in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
Relax, take a deep breath. Neither Weber State, out of the Big Sky, nor Utah Valley State, from the WAC, is going to beat the Shockers. Weber state has lost four games to teams ranked 150 or below in the RPI. Utah Valley State has a 53-point loss to Oklahoma State on its resume. Yes, that was back when OSU was good, but 53 points?
Wichita State moves on.
Next up? According to Lunardi, it’s either New Mexico or Arizona State, the eighth and ninth seeds. And this is where things get interesting.
New Mexico is 32nd in the RPI and has a nine-point win this season over Cincinnati. The Lobos have won 12 of their last 14 games with the only losses being by three points to UNLV and a point to Boise State.
Arizona State is similarly hot, having won 6 of 7. One of those wins was in Tempe against Arizona, which was ranked No. 2 at the time. The Sun Devils, 28th in the RPI, have also beaten Colorado, California and Oregon, but lost by 28 points to Creighton in November.
Palms sweaty? Yeah, I figured. It wouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament without sweaty palms.
But the Shockers should beat either New Mexico or Arizona State to advance to Indianapolis and the Sweet 16. Now the fun really begins.
The next opponent would come from a pool of Texas (4), Michigan (5), Harvard (12) or Delaware (13). If the higher seeds prevail, the Shockers would get either Texas or Michigan in the Sweet 16.
Texas is 19th in the RPI; Michigan is 17th. The Longhorns have beaten Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and North Carolina. Texas has had a surprisingly good season, perhaps even saving Rick Barnes’ job in the process.
Michigan, like WSU, was in the Final Four last season in Atlanta. The Wolverines lost significant players from that team and were further damaged when Mitch McGary went down with an injury this season after eight games. After a hot streak, Michigan has lost three of its last five games.
It’ll be tough, of course, but the Shockers can win this Sweet 16 game against either opponent.
Now the drum roll, please. Because, according to Lunardi’s brackets, Wichita State’s opponent could well be the No. 2 seed in the Midwest and someone you might have heard of. Does Kansas ring a bell?
Oh boy. The Shockers and Jayhawks meet with a trip to the Final Four on the line. For now, this is one man’s speculation. But it’s not crazy speculation. Lunardi shouldn’t be locked away in a padded room for throwing a high stakes KU-WSU matchup into the wind.
It’s a reasonable deduction, based on the season to date. If Wichita State were to lose a game or two the rest of the way, the Shockers likely fall out of the No. 1 seed discussion to who knows where?
Kansas, meanwhile, has kept itself viable despite six losses because of what is deemed to be the nation’s most difficult schedule. The Jayhawks, I suppose, could even still grab a No. 1 seed if they sweep through the rest of the regular season and the Big 12 Tournament.
For now, Kansas is a No. 2. And the Shockers are a No. 1. And Lunardi has them playing what could be one of the most intriguing games in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
Can you imagine? An unbeaten Wichita State team taking on a Kansas squad that wants nothing to do with the Shockers during the regular season? With a Final Four prize going to the winner?
Now back to the real world. The Shockers play Loyola on Wednesday in Chicago. See you in March.