This story may be meaningless if Wichita State keeps winning basketball games.
In case the 23rd-ranked Shockers stumble, know that the NCAA Tournament selection committee is aware the Shockers are playing without three starters, two of whom are scheduled to return. They know WSU’s lone loss — at Tennessee — came with two starters out.
Information is not the issue. What they do with that information is another question. Fortunately for WSU, its record is strong. There appears to be little precedent for a team with a weak NCAA resume, and injury problems, getting the benefit of the doubt for inclusion in the field.
“Injuries are recognized and factored,” said West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, a member of the committee since last season. “We have to evaluate the team with the roster that will be competing in the NCAA Tournament.”
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Zaninovich is the committee member charged with following the Missouri Valley Conference, along with three other conferences, closely and reporting to the committee when it gathers in March. Another member of the 10-person committee follows the MVC as a secondary contact.
“I use a lot of DVR space,” Zaninovich said. “I’ll watch as much Valley basketball as I can.”
Committee members can read a dedicated website, updated by the conference, with injuries, suspensions and other circumstances. When bad weather rerouted Indiana State through Philadelphia and Chicago (before busing to Terre Haute) on its way back from Hawaii, the selection committee knew.
The MVC also uses the website to highlight good wins and good losses, such as WSU’s defeat at Tennessee. MVC commissioner Doug Elgin and associate commissioner Mike Kern hold four teleconferences each season (two more than last season) with the main contacts on the committee to update them on how the season is unfolding.
“Everybody will be very, very prepared for those special situations,” said Texas-San Antonio athletic director Lynn Hickey, a committee member from 2007-12.
WSU is without leading scorer Carl Hall (six games), Ron Baker (six games) and Evan Wessel (eight games). Hall is expected to return from a broken thumb later this month. Baker (stress fracture) will get off crutches on Jan. 29. Wessel’s broken pinky finger will keep him out for the rest of the season. Wessel missed the Tennessee game, as did Ehimen Orukpe, who has since returned from a sprained ankle.
The Shockers are surviving nicely. They are 15-1, 4-0 in the MVC with an RPI ranked No. 18 after Wednesday’s 82-76 win over Southern Illinois.
“Obviously they have a situation that is magnified with three starters out,” said Elgin, who served on the selection committee from 1999 to 2002. “It really is taken into serious consideration, how many games are played at full strength.”
How much consideration is uncertain, Hickey and Zaninovich say.
The 10-person committee will seed the 68-team field and select 37 at-large teams based on many factors. By March 17, the committee will consider WSU’s resume against others. The Shockers are firmly in the field as of now and are playing for seeding. Should that change , the committee will have a lot to think about.
When committee members look at the final group of at-large teams, it is likely several will present injury issues. Committee members will compare resumes, consider injuries and other special situations, and make their call.
In the end, a team will rise or fall based on who it played and who it beat. If WSU’s resume weakens significantly over the next nine weeks, injuries probably won’t push it past a large number of schools into the at-large pool.
If the Shockers drop from a sure thing to a strong bubble team, games lost while at less-than-full-strength could give them an edge over a team that didn’t experience injury issues.
“It’s a very difficult process,” Hickey said. “There will be 10 different committee members looking at different things. That keeps balance in the room.”
Besides continuing to win, the most important thing for the Shockers is to get Hall and Baker back in time for the committee to see they are healthy.
“It really is a body of work — how did they perform and their circumstances,” Zaninovich said. “With people coming off injuries, we want to see how they’re playing as part of the team that we are considering.”
Jerry Palm, who projects NCAA bracket selections for CBSSports.com, said injuries will affect seedings, not inclusion in the field. While the committee can consider injuries, they can’t turn a loss into a victory. Palm said he believes a school such as Wichita State will get a smaller margin of error than a high-profile school from a high-profile conference.
“I can’t think of a single team that has been selected with a sub-standard credentials,” he said. “Everybody has guys that miss time.”
There are several examples of injuries affecting seeding, a category that may help the Shockers, should they continue to win.
In 2000, eventual champion Michigan State earned a No. 1 seed with a 26-7 record, helped by the fact star Mateen Cleaves missed 13 games with injury. The Spartans went 9-4 in those games, including a loss to Wright State. That same season, the committee gave 28-3 Cincinnati a No. 2 seed after a season-ending injury to Kenyon Martin in the conference tournament.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall used “Leave no doubt” as a rallying cry last season, his way of telling his team to eliminate the chance for a last-second shot or a whistle to lose a game. The Shockers, even while play short-handed, are on their way to removing any doubt about their worthiness as an NCAA team.
“They can rest assured it’s going to be a fair process,” Hickey said. “What’s not fair is that sometimes kids get hurt. Everybody has a story as their season goes on about the bad points and the good points.”