A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is supposed to be out of range for schools from the Missouri Valley Conference.
Nonsense. All MVC schools need do is play perfect basketball for four months and the prize atop a regional bracket is theirs.
Larry Bird’s Indiana State team went 29-0 in the regular season to earn a No. 1 seed in the 1979 NCAA Tournament. Now a No. 1 seed is Wichita State’s to lose. The Shockers are 23-0 and need 11 more wins to give the NCAA selection committee an unbeaten resume.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
This is a big week for that quest. WSU plays at Indiana State on Wednesday and at Northern Iowa on Saturday, its only remaining road games against teams with winning records. Survive those trips and the odds of an unbeaten season rise.
“I’m rooting for them,” said ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi. “At this point, I think Wichita State’s odds are about 60-40 in favor. It’s just a smidge too early (to) have them be reliable. They will have more validity (soon).”
The No. 1 seed carries prestige and the benefit of a (usually) easy first game against an overmatched No. 16 seed. Top seeds are unbeaten against the No. 16 seed since those matchups began in 1985. Top seeds also give teams a geographic advantage. Should WSU go unbeaten, it can count on opening the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis or San Antonio.
“We would absolutely love to have Wichita State come here,” said MVC commissioner Doug Elgin from the conference office in St. Louis.
It also carries increased scrutiny and pressure, as Gonzaga can attest after the Shockers ended its run as No. 1 seed last March in Salt Lake City.
Gonzaga was a rarity from outside the power conferences to grab a No. 1 seed in recent seasons. Saint Joseph’s earned one in 2004. Memphis did in 2006 and 2008. The Shockers are on track to join them, as long as they remain unbeaten.
And remaining unbeaten will do it.
“Hell, yeah,” said Elgin, a former member of the NCAA selection committee.
“There is almost no scenario in which (WSU) is unbeaten and not a No. 1 seed,” Lunardi said. “You’d be talking about an unbeaten, (2013) Final Four team.”
Jerry Palm, who assembles mock brackets for CBSSports.com, looks at WSU’s potential 34-0 record and around 10 wins over top-100 RPI teams, highlighted by a win at Saint Louis (20-2), and is sure it merits a No. 1 seed. WSU’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks No. 37, according to CBSSports.com. Its overall schedule strength ranks No. 81. For comparison’s sake, Arizona’s non-conference schedule ranks No. 28 and Syracuse’s is No. 98.
“Undefeated, that’s a slam dunk,” he said. “That’s clearly a one seed-level accomplishment.”
The case grows less clear should the Shockers lose. Lunardi figures they will drop one spot for each defeat, depending on the opponent. A loss to Indiana State in the MVC Tournament title game hurts considerably less than a loss at Loyola in the regular season.
Lunardi works as the vice president for marketing communications at Saint Joseph’s, when he is not bracketing for ESPN. He knows how the national media often regards schools outside the top conferences. He sympathizes with WSU coach Gregg Marshall and his frustrations with attacks on the schedule and the MVC.
“I’ve seen this movie,” he said. “The skepticism will be there until the end. It’s the same narrative for the most part. There’s just not going to be as much wiggle room for a team from the Missouri Valley, Final Four or not.”
Palm warns that two losses could drop the Shockers to a No. 4 seed, citing the MVC as a drag on the resume. While the Shockers played a good non-conference schedule, outside of Saint Louis and, perhaps, Tennessee, it is not loaded with certain tournament teams. According to warrennolan.com, WSU is No. 7 in the power rankings (RPI) with a 3-0 record against the top 50 and 2-0 against teams ranked 51-100.
Arizona, Syracuse and WSU, according to Lunardi, are solid No. 1s. The pack behind them is growing, with teams such as Kansas, Florida, Villanova and Michigan State lurking. His latest bracket adds Kansas as a No. 1 seed. Palm favors Michigan State over Kansas. Arizona dropped from the ranks of unbeatens with a loss to California on Saturday night.
“It’s unusually cluttered,” Lunardi said. “It is pretty late in the year for the top line to have quite so many contenders.”
Before making travel plans, printing T-shirts or lighting a victory cigar, check the calendar. Regard previous statements as largely speculative based on a fluid situation, recorded purely for amusement. It is early February. Much can change.
And as Palm points out, the Shockers proved last season that a No. 9 seed can play great basketball in March and April.
“They’re going to be a team to be reckoned with in the tournament, if they stay healthy,” Palm said. “Whatever seed they get, that’s a pretty good basketball team that has been to the Final Four and knows how to get back.”