Wichita State is a staple, now, of the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers might not always like their seeding or the consternation that precedes their ultimate inclusion in March Madness, but once they get here they put their feet up, order a steak and make themselves at home.
Sadly, though, the Missouri Valley Conference isn’t helping WSU and its quest to reach the pinnacle of college basketball. The Shockers have been seeded 10th and 11th the past two seasons despite a body of work in the NCAA Tournament that cries out for higher seeds.
Wichita State is 10-4 in the NCAA Tournament since 2012. The Shockers have reached a Final Four and a Sweet 16. They nearly knocked off Kentucky while a No. 1 seed in 2014, but it took a 34-0 run to get that No. 1 and to then find the Wildcats looming as a potential second-round foe.
WSU, as you know, is looking at its options. Its conference options and whether or not football needs to be a part of the future.
More than 15 months after WSU president John Bardo and athletic director Darron Boatright announced that the university was looking at its place in the athletic world, nothing has been announced.
There are rumblings that the Shockers are interested in bolting for the American Athletic Conference and that the infatuation is mutual. Wichita State would obviously give the American, whose NCAA Tournament combatants this year are SMU and Cincinnati, a boost.
And while the American isn’t going to be confused with the power-six basketball conferences, it can make a strong case as the country’s seventh-best conference with Connecticut, Memphis, Houston and Tulsa, among others.
Something is going to happen here quickly. I would be shocked if it has anything to do with football. There’s no future in football for Wichita State. It would only muddy things and potentially make it more difficult for the Shockers to maintain their status as a basketball powerhouse.
The resources drained by the addition of football would trickle down to every program in the athletic department.
Just say no to football.
But if the Shockers can get to the American — and being on center stage so frequently of late in the NCAA Tournament can’t hurt their chances — their bags should be packed.
During Wichita State’s first-round win over Dayton on Friday night, Boatright was seated next to Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin and associate commissioner Jack Watkins. Mike Kern, another associate commissioner, is also in Indianapolis to support the Shockers.
That relationship must be awkward. Just four years after their hearts were broken by the departure of Creighton to the Big East, the guys who run the Valley, wonderful people one and all, are looking at the potential of losing the conference’s remaining big dog.
Trouble is, Wichita State is about the only dog still barking in the Valley. Illinois State was the MVC co-champion this season and beat Wichita State in Normal, Ill., but the Shockers gained revenge with 41- and 20-point wins later in the season, including the championship of the Valley tournament in St. Louis.
Breakups are difficult and Wichita State has been in the MVC since 1945. There was a long stretch of time when the Valley met all of the Shockers’ needs. There have been times when Wichita State didn’t do enough to lift up the Valley.
But over the past 17 years, since former athletic director Jim Schaus hired Mark Turgeon to coach basketball in 2000 and the university made a commitment to facilities and salaries, Wichita State has outgrown the league. That growth was not perceptible, necessarily, year to year. But over this much time, it’s obvious the Shockers are on a higher level than the other nine Valley schools. And the chasm has widened in Gregg Marshall’s 10 seasons as coach.
Marshall has taken the Shockers to places previously deemed unimaginable. Wichita State played in 17 NCAA Tournament games from the time of the tourney’s inception in 1939 through 2006. WSU has played in 15 tournament games the past six years.
The Valley can’t keep up. As Wichita State is knocking off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana, Kansas, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Dayton, the other MVC teams that reach the postseason are too often in the NIT, CBI or CIT.
The Shockers are a player and the rest of the Valley is being played.
A move to the American wouldn’t come without risk, of course. What if Marshall leaves? What if the Shockers make a bad hire to replace him?
There are no guarantees in life and you can’t aspire to greatness if fear pulls against you.
The Missouri Valley no longer fulfills WSU’s needs. It’s as simple as that. The American, flaws and all, would be a great landing spot and it wouldn’t necessitate a foolish and expensive return to football. It would be good for both sides.
What’s taking so long?