The banners in Koch Arena tell stories about successful seasons in Wichita State's basketball past.
A mere eight of them recognize NCAA Tournament appearances. That tells an important story, as well.
It's not easy for WSU to make the NCAA Tournament. Shocker fans rightfully boast about their program's tradition, but the truth is NCAA bids are rare treats. After a loss in the 1988 NCAA Tournament, WSU didn't return until 2006.
It wasn't easy in the 1950s and '60s, when national powers such as Cincinnati and Bradley blocked their way in the Missouri Valley Conference. It hasn't been easy recently, as the scheduling and power-ratings breaks often seem to go against the Shockers.
So here we are again with a group of seniors who will call the season a disappointment if they don't hang an NCAA banner. WSU opens the season today against Charleston Southern at Koch Arena.
Is that a fair expectation?
"I think it is," senior center Garrett Stutz said. "I understand it's hard. Our school has done it once in the last (23) years, so it's a very difficult task. But it's not impossible. It's a realistic goal."
That goal is what WSU coach Gregg Marshall had in mind when he recruited Stutz and guards Toure Murry and David Kyles four years ago. Along with Ben Smith and Joe Ragland, transfers in their second season at WSU, they get one last chance at college basketball's premier event.
"The seniors know if we don't get the job done, there's definitely going to be some disappointment or regret that we will always have," Stutz said. "We all came in here with a common goal. We have yet to achieve that goal."
Shocker history is full of seniors who didn't meet that goal, even while winning a significant number of games. It is growing more difficult for MVC schools to earn at-large bids, leaving WSU little room for error.
WSU controls many aspects of building an NCAA resume. But it doesn't control all of them, and that's where the frustration grows. When the Shockers win 75 percent of their games, they're told it's not enough. When they schedule and defeat high-profile schools such as LSU, Iowa and Virginia, they are told those wins aren't significant enough.
"It's just reality — it is very difficult to do," Marshall said. "In my opinion, we were good enough to make an NCAA Tournament last season. We could have won some games in the NCAA Tournament."
* The 2005 Shockers had a Ratings Percentage Index ranking of No. 45 on Selection Sunday. They finished second in the nation's No. 8-ranked conference with a 20-9 record.
They played in the NIT.
* The 2010 Shockers had a 43 RPI on Selection Sunday with a 25-9 record.
They played in the NIT.
* The 2011 Shockers (RPI 60) finished second in the MVC and lost close games to eventual national champion Connecticut and eventual Final Four team Virginia Commonwealth. A 24-8 record and non-conference wins over Virginia, LSU and Tulsa didn't impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
WSU won the NIT.
Marshall knows nothing comes easy for schools in the 26 conferences not regarded as one of the NCAA's top six conferences. Last season, schools from the Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pacific-10 conferences grabbed 30 of the 37 at-large spots in the 68-team field. In 2009, the high-profile schools grabbed 30 of 34 spots in the 65-team field.
"We didn't get there," Marshall said. "Is that all because of us? Maybe. Maybe not. We're the second-best team in our league for the second year in a row, and we didn't get in."
Those realities are tough for MVC coaches to stomach. In 2006, three MVC schools earned at-large bids and two advanced to the Sweet 16. Since then, MVC schools poured money into coaching salaries and facilities without similar results. Last season's NCAA Tournament marked the fourth straight in which one MVC team played. Before that, the MVC earned an at-large bid every season from 1999 to 2007.
In 2009, the NCAA selection committee relegated MVC co-champion Creighton to the NIT. It got worse in 2011, when MVC champion Missouri State didn't merit an NCAA bid after losing in the conference tournament.
No issue is more important in the MVC. Money produced by multiple NCAA bids in recent seasons is falling. Commissioner Doug Elgin is optimistic that a crop of young talent and a commitment to scheduling tougher opponents will help.
"Seventy-five percent of our revenue is generated through the NCAA basketball distribution," Elgin said. "We know that the payout is going to go down, and that's a concern. And it's not just about money. It's about the perception of the Missouri Valley Conference in men's basketball and how we are recognized nationally."