August and September remain critical months for Wichita State to build an NCAA resume for volleyball, no matter what conference it plays in.
The Shockers, preseason favorites in the American Athletic Conference, open the season with two matches Saturday in Nashville, Tenn. Their non-conference travels take them to Indianapolis and Eugene, Ore., before home matches against Creighton (Sept. 15) and Iowa State (Sept. 17).
On Sept. 18, Coach Chris Lamb knows WSU needs to own several quality wins and avoid bad losses if it wants to win the favor of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. That was the case when WSU played in the Missouri Valley Conference and it won’t change in its first season in the American.
“It’s the Daytona 500 example — that’s the biggest race of the year and it’s the first race of the year,” Lamb said. “What happens (Saturday) is everything. Now if you’re Texas or Stanford and you want to spend your first four weeks playing around with lineups … good for you. We don’t have that luxury.”
The American and the MVC compare at the top. The bottom of the American is stronger than the bottom of the MVC. So while the move may produce a tougher schedule, membership in the American does not mean the Shockers can muddle through their non-conference matches and make up ground in the AAC.
In the past four seasons, the American produced one at-large team — Cincinnati in 2016. The MVC produced five at-large teams in the same span.
The Shockers, 24-8 last season, play Lipscomb and East Tennessee State on Saturday and Belmont on Sunday in Lipscomb’s LUV Invitational. All three opponents are preseason favorites in their conference. No. 9 Creighton, No. 18 Oregon and 2016 NCAA teams Marquette, Iowa State and Miami (Ohio) await.
American coaches knew what they were getting when the conference added Wichita State. Lamb loves to talk scheduling and his success with at-large bids gives credibility to his thoughts. So when he voiced concern about schedules on a conference call with AAC coaches, it didn’t surprise Cincinnati’s Molly Alvey.
The new guy in the room didn’t hold back.
“Scheduling is a big deal to Chris, so its fun to have someone with that kind of perspective,” she said. “Chris has been around a long time. He’s always been outspoken and I greatly appreciate his candid spirit.”
Lamb hears some push-back for his candid nature. He doesn’t mind.
His read on power rankings and scheduling is that the American could add at-large bids with better scheduling and a conference tournament formatted to protect high seeds and give good teams another chance to add quality wins.
“Everybody’s got some anecdotal thing to say and I’m always ‘Where’s the evidence?’ ” he said. “I keep saying that — show me the evidence, or tell me this person so I can talk to them. They never give me the name. That’s why I say the numbers have been honest. Here is the math that is being honest. Following that makes sense.”
Lamb is concerned that some American teams aren’t picky enough about opponents. The MVC’s success grabbing at-large bids proves that smart, ambitious schedules can make a big difference.
“The Missouri Valley programs have done a better job scheduling,” he said. “The teams are much closer than the schedules and that’s kudos to the Valley.”
When Lamb looks through American schedules, he sees too many that hinder at-large hopes in August. It is, in his mind, a game of patience and stubbornness to make sure tournament fields offer good competition.
“You want to give your team a chance, or give them no chance?” Lamb said. “You can look at schedules and say ‘No chance, no chance, has a chance, looks good for them.’ Some schedules, even with execution, won’t equal at-large. There’s just not enough meat on it.”
Cincinnati went 22-10 last season and finished second in the American at 17-3. Champion SMU grabbed the automatic bid with an 18-2 regular-season record (the American doesn’t play a tournament). Cincinnati defeated WSU at Koch Arena, a win that helped its NCAA resume.
Like many coaches, Alvey tries to produce a strong power ranking by playing teams that will finish with 20 or more wins and playing teams that also play good teams. All those wins can help the RPI.
“Scheduling in the non-conference is always a bit of an art,” Alvey said. “You’re doing a lot of predictions where teams may place, according to how they’ve performed in the past. There’s a lot of math to it, for sure, and that math doesn’t always turn out like you expect.”
The American finished last season ranked No. 6 nationally in the RPI, seven spots above the MVC. It put six schools — No. 22 SMU, No. 40 Cincinnati, No. 45 Temple, No. 60 Central Florida, No. 75 Tulsa and No. 88 Tulane — in the top 100. The MVC had No. 35 WSU, No. 47 Missouri State, No. 49 Northern Iowa and No. 73 Southern Illinois in the top 100.
“Our conference continues to get better,” Alvey said. “That non-conference scheduling is pretty critical, so that we can all be in a great spot.”
Last season, Missouri State and Northern Iowa both earned at-large bids. Lamb credits scheduling, which he said makes a difference for close calls by the NCAA committee.
“If you’re right there, but not there, what’s the difference?” Lamb said. “I’m saying I’ll bet it’s the non-conference schedule more than saying ‘We should have won that one match.’ ”