ST. LOUIS — It's been well-documented that the Missouri Valley Conference likely isn't strong enough to produce an NCAA Tournament at-large team.
The clues started in November and led to one conclusion: Conferences that rank No. 12 nationally in schedule strength, go 1-10 against ranked opponents and 6-18 against power-conference opponents shouldn't count on much in March.
That reality takes on new meaning for Wichita State today when it opens quarterfinal play in the MVC Tournament. The second-seeded Shockers (23-7) know they need to win three games at the Scottrade Center, or return to the NIT for a second straight season.
"I've told my guys this is the one opportunity you have to take everything else out of play," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "Three games in three days, you win. And no one asks questions."
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Top-seeded Missouri State (23-7) is in a slightly stronger position. The Bears own a No. 40 RPI ranking and the MVC title. ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi projects them as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament (as the MVC champ), meaning their at-large chances are weak. He lists WSU, with a No. 50 RPI, in his group of eight teams on the wrong side of the discussion. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com also considers MSU a No. 12 seed and excludes WSU from the at-large pool.
Neither team can boast many high-profile wins. MSU is 2-1 against top-50 RPI teams, both over WSU. The Shockers are 0-4.
"Whether or not the experts have us in as an at-large team or not doesn't change how we are going to prepare for this tournament," MSU center Will Creekmore said. "It's always been our goal to win this championship."
The Shockers may draw on a combination of assets no other team in the field enjoys. WSU has championship game experience from last season, and its depth is well-suited to playing back-to-back-to-back games.
WSU lost to Northern Iowa in the championship game, its first appearance since 1987. After years of frustration, the Shockers built some positive memories in St. Louis.
"We came so close last year to reaching our goal," WSU senior Graham Hatch said. "I think this year is a perfect opportunity for us to achieve that. I think we're definitely ready as a team to do that."
Depending on the situation, Marshall plays as many as 10. No Shocker averages more than 26.3 minutes.
"It's great to throw so many different bodies at opponents," WSU center J.T. Durley said. "Playing each team for a third time, they've got you pretty well scouted. We can throw many different looks out there on the court and many different matchups."
To make any of that matter, the Shockers need to play better than they did in Saturday's 69-64 loss at Missouri State. A good chunk of practice time went to cleaning up offensive problems such as cutting, screening and passing the ball to the big men. WSU committed nine turnovers and didn't record an assist in the first half at MSU.
"The biggest thing we need to do right now is get us better," Marshall said. "I think our guys saw when you don't move the ball and you're not crisp offensively and you're not thinking team... that is not a good recipe for us."
WSU had five days to recover from the disappointment of losing the MVC title to Missouri State. Today, the Shockers start over.
"We just want to go prove to the world that we're one of the best teams coming out of this conference, and we belong in the NCAA Tournament," Durley said.