Bob Lutz

What’s plain to see with Wichita State isn’t always so easy to acknowledge

It’s been 10 years now that Gregg Marshall has coached basketball at Wichita State. He’s turned the Shockers into a dominant Missouri Valley Conference force, sent players to the NBA, become the most-rumored about coach in college basketball — get ready for more of those, by the way — and made WSU a perennial 25-win team.

Yet every year there are doubters. Every year there are people not quite convinced that the Shockers’ resume or RPI or non-conference schedule or strength of something or other is good enough.

People, do we have eyes? Can we trust them?

Wichita State blew up any doubt Sunday, beating Illinois State 71-51 in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game and clinching the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Whew.

Finally, Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com will be forced to put the Shockers in his bracket after stubbornly refusing to do so as an at-large possibility.

For a team that’s now made it to six straight NCAA Tournaments, been to a Final Four (2013) and started a season 35-0 before losing to Kentucky in an NCAA classic, the Shockers still aren’t given anything. Including respect.

Some of this, of course, is the fault of the Missouri Valley Conference, which hasn’t been able to keep up with WSU’s rapid rise. The Valley is down at the same time the Shockers are up, so this team gets lost in the shuffle in January and February, when ESPN is shining its lights on the nation’s power conferences.

We pay too much attention to what everybody says and not nearly enough attention to what teams do. Yes, the Shockers are in a bad conference. But they’ve obliterated the teams in that conference and have an undeniable track record of NCAA Tournament success.

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Just last year, after barely getting in, WSU went to the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, and stoned Vanderbilt, then trounced Arizona in a first-round game before finally losing to Miami (Fla.) for a trip to the Sweet 16.

The Shockers are at a place in their history now where they can lose Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet to the NBA and go 30-4 the season after. They’re at a point where they can replace icons with Conner Frankamp and Landry Shamet and not lose much.

Frankamp, named the Most Outstanding Player of the Valley tournament after a 19-point performance against Illinois State, has been a different player for five weeks, averaging 13.9 points since Jan. 29 and shooting the lights out.

Shamet has taken over the point-guard position after being the No. 4 choice before the season started. Marshall loved the idea of Shamet playing off the ball, but the Shockers are best when he has the ball and Frankamp is working to find an opening.

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“The turning point for us, I think if you had to pick one thing, would be giving Landry Shamet the ball and having him run the point,” Marshall said. “He’s been really good and Conner has come on. I think it’s pretty clear he’s playing with a different level of confidence and moxie and shooting the ball brilliantly.”

Marshall also rightly pointed out the improved play of 6-foot-8 junior Shaq Morris in the post and the coming of age of junior forward Rashard Kelly. As usual, the Shockers are more than just one or two — or four or five — players. Marshall has done a great job with his roster and once again, for the ninth time in his 10 seasons, WSU will be without a player averaging 15 or more points.

Since losing at Illinois State 76-62 on Jan. 14, the Shockers have won 15 games by an average of 23.2 points. And yet there’s been this uneasiness that if Wichita State didn’t win in St. Louis, they’d be turned down at the entrance of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s crazy, really. A flaw in a system nobody really understands, but that is obviously weighted so a seventh-place team in a power conference can feel better about its tournament chances than a team that has rolled through its mid-major conference like an army taking over a country.

Illinois State coach Dan Muller knows the Shockers. He doesn’t need some guy in front of a computer, knee deep in mathematical algoryythms, to tell him what is plain to see.

“They have five guys on the floor at all times that are threats and it’s hard to guard,” Muller said. “As physical as their bigs are and as deep as their two (guards) can shoot it. We lost a little bit of discipline today. But in the end, Wichita State is the main reason for that.”

The Shockers erased all doubt Sunday by doing what they’ve been doing for a couple of months.

“I think what clicked, I mean we hate to lose,” said Kelly of how the Shockers have taken off since the Illinois State loss. “I think at that point in time, it was the basketball gods looking out for us, opening our eyes. We went back and watched film and 1 through 16, nobody played a good game. Every day since then, we’ve just pushed ourselves to be the best we can.”

Muller alluded to the Shockers maybe even being better than the one that started 35-0 before the Kentucky loss. Crazy?

“You know, this team’s comparable,” Marshall said. “It really is.”

And the Shockers are going to the NCAA Tournament. Even Palm has them in his bracket now.

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