You know the typical guarantee opponent. A team from a barely-Division I conference comes to Koch Arena with no hope and happily takes its check for a beating.
This season is different. Wichita State upped the level of the opponents it pays to visit with no return game, a reaction to the departure of Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference, and the loss of BracketBusters and the Valley’s series with the Mountain West Conference.
Earlier this season, Western Kentucky, lured by an ESPN2 game and a $100,000 guarantee, lost 66-49 at Koch Arena. The Hilltoppers are a proud bunch with seven NCAA Tournament bids since 2001, including a spot in the 2008 Sweet 16. On Saturday, Oral Roberts came to Koch Arena with no return, at a price of $90,000.
Not long ago, the Golden Eagles seemed like a natural rival with WSU, especially after they swept a home-and-home series in 2002 and 2003 and went to the NCAA Tournament in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
That’s not Chicago State (94-44 losers in 2011) or Alabama A&M (71-49 in 2010).
“We lost, potentially, five of our most marquee games,” senior associate athletic director Darron Boatright said. “When it came to strength of schedule and RPI, that’s a tremendous blow to the Valley. But especially to us, because we try to schedule in a manner where we protect ourselves, and don’t rely on the rest of the Valley.”
The Shockers schedule wisely and they win. They earned NCAA at-large bids the past two seasons, an overlooked part of their recent success story.
To keep that going, they needed to replace the lost games with good value. NCAA Division II Emporia State, the season’s first guarantee game, doesn’t figure in the RPI calculations. On Dec. 22, WSU plays North Carolina Central, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team that turned into a bonus. Central went 22-9 last season with an RPI ranked No. 152. In its four previous seasons, its RPI ranked No. 231 or worse. This season, the Eagles are on the right track again with wins at North Carolina State and Old Dominion.
Signing North Carolina Central to a two-year deal ($70,000 per game) looks like a genius move. WSU defeated Central 71-57 last season.
“We didn’t know they were going to go 15-1 in their league last year,” Boatright said. “That one we got lucky.”
It’s not all luck. Boatright works with basketball staffers Dominic Okon and Devon Smith to identify teams on the way up. They use a black spiral full of schedules and power rankings compiled by Jim Sukup of Collegiate Basketball News and given to MVC teams by the conference office. They look for three-year RPI trends and try to find teams with stable coaching staffs and a core of players who can win for a year or two.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall signs off on the games after that trio presents him options. If things go as planned, WSU will emerge with four wins from its guarantee games without sinking its RPI.
“I bet there’s not a group of guarantee games anywhere in the country that’s more formidable than those,” Marshall said. “In those type games, you want to play as good as teams as you can and still win.”
“It just didn’t happen,” Banwart said.
So Banwart is feeling rejuvenated to try things with a new team. When he became a free agent this fall, he jumped at the chance to sign with Cleveland. He will go to spring training with a chance to make the majors, either as a starter or a reliever.
“They said they had been watching me for a few years,” Banwart said. “It’s a fresh start. It’s nice to be going in without knowing the ropes and see how they do it.”
Banwart went 9-7 with a 3.80 ERA in 2010 at Double-A and Triple-A. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League after the season. He spent the next three seasons with Sacramento, making 18 or more starts each season. Last summer, he went 10-5 with a 4.60 ERA, striking out 125 with 54 walks in 131 innings.
That’s a lot of time to be one elbow strain or doubleheader from getting a call-up.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” he said. “But I’m playing baseball for a living. You want to get up there and show what you have against the best players in the world. Hopefully, it happens this year.”
Banwart will join former Shocker Jordan Cooper with the Indians. Cooper underwent elbow surgery after the season and expects to be throwing a full strength when spring training starts. He expects to begin the season with Double-A Akron.
As of Friday afternoon, around 3,800 tickets remained, according to WSU. The downtown arena seats 15,004. The Shockers will play their fourth game at the arena. WSU drew 14,112 against Tulsa in 2010, its largest crowd at the arena.
In past seasons, promoters discounted tickets as the game approached. According to WSU, that practice will not happen this year. Since the game is part of a home-and-home series, no promoter is involved.