Wichita State juniors Zach Bush and John Robert Simon know the routine. Lose in St. Louis and the Shockers get on a plane, sit quietly and console themselves with thoughts of the NCAA Tournament.
Win and it’s a lot louder on the charter flight.
“It’s a party vs. going to a funeral,” Bush said.
“Frustration,” Simon said.
The Shockers come to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament motivated by three things: Their standard hatred of losing, the knowledge winning the automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament makes next week more fun and the fact they rule every aspect of life in the MVC, except this tournament.
It may seem like a small thing, until you realize there are no small things when it comes to winning basketball games at Wichita State. The Shockers came to St. Louis as the No. 1 seed in 2012 and 2015 and lost in the semifinals. In 2013, the second-seeded Shockers lost to Creighton in the final.
Each time, they cruised into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. While Gregg Marshall’s winning percentage in the tournament is .611, that’s not nearly good enough for the bunch that is 51-3 in MVC regular-season games the past three seasons.
“Going into this season, this tournament was maybe the No. 1 priority… obviously you want to win the regular season outright, which we did, but I was looking at St. Louis as something I really wanted to accomplish this year as far as a high goal,” WSU senior Ron Baker said. “We haven’t been able to be successful there, and it’s another checkmark you want on your list of things you’ve accomplished when set out on your journey to play at this level.”
In other words, the Shockers haven’t yet ruined St. Louis for the other nine schools quite like they’ve ruined everything else. They won it in 2014, WSU’s first title since 1987.
If there’s any place we’ve left a little bit of doubt, it would have to be here.
“If there’s any place we’ve left a little bit of doubt, it would have to be here,” Bush said. “That doesn’t sit well with guys.”
In the past four seasons, the Shockers came to St. Louis confident in their at-large chances.
In 2013, they likely needed to win at least a game to avoid an issue. In 2014, they needed to win to preserve their No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This season, a Friday loss could mean anything from disaster to a trip to Dayton for the First Four. A Saturday loss makes for an uneasy week of wondering about the selection committee and stressing over upsets in tournaments.
A Sunday loss seems OK, but nobody wants that.
“We all have a pretty good feeling about it, but you never know,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “We don’t get to be in the room with the selection committee. That just gives us even more urgency and even more direction.”
The Shockers enter the weekend with an RPI (power ranking) of 42, according to CBSSports.com.
In its favor is a non-conference strength of schedule ranked No. 7, one loss outside the top 100 of the RPI (at No. 105 Illinois State) and a bit of a cushion, squishy as it may be, created by Fred VanVleet’s hamstring injury. The eye test seems to work for the Shockers. Three weeks ago, ESPN’s Jay Bilas called them capable of winning the national title.
Working against WSU is a 1-4 record against the top 50 and the weakness of the MVC. Any loss in St. Louis will be viewed as a bad one and wins won’t add much to the resume.
“Everything now is one-and-done,” Marshall said. “It's one-and-done in St. Louis, and it's one-and-done in whatever tournament we happen to find ourselves in. That magnifies the intensity, and hopefully we've put ourselves in a good position.”
WSU’s five-game win streak — all by 16 points for more — repaired some of the damage from early February losses to Illinois State and Northern Iowa.
ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi slots WSU as a No. 7 seed, safe territory for an at-large team. USA Today’s Shelby Mast places the Shockers as a No. 10 seed, not leaving much room for a Friday loss to a bad team. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm measures them an 11th seed.
“Wichita State ended up roughly where we thought it would be,” ESPN.com’s Eamon Brennan wrote. “Which is to say: The Shockers are really, really good. They're also a lock. And they have a 25 percent chance of being the totally terrifying No. 7-ish seed in your favorite team's NCAA tournament region. Feeling lucky?”
At Scottrade Center, St. Louis
Thursday’s Play-In Games
No. 9 Bradley (5-26) vs. No. 8 Loyola (14-16), 6 p.m.
No. 10 Drake (7-23) vs. No. 7 Missouri State (12-18), 8:30
BU-LU winner vs. No. 1 Wichita St. (23-7), noon
No. 5 Southern Illinois (22-9) vs. No. 4 Northern Iowa (19-12), 2:30 p.m.
Missouri State-Drake winner vs. No. 2 Evansville (23-8), 6 p.m.
No. 6 Indiana State (14-16) vs. No. 3 Illinois St. (18-13), 8:30
On CBS Sports Network
First two quarterfinal winners, 2:30 p.m.
Second two quarterfinal winners, 5
Semifinal winners, 1 p.m.