Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Shockers win big over Bears as NCAA tourney doubt lingers

Wichita State’s Ron Baker steals the ball from Missouri State’s Obediah Church during the first half Thursday at Koch Arena.
Wichita State’s Ron Baker steals the ball from Missouri State’s Obediah Church during the first half Thursday at Koch Arena. The Wichita Eagle

It’s been a crazy college basketball season and the zaniness would rise to a new level if Wichita State misses the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, the Shockers can take care of any doubt by running the table and winning the next six games, including three in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis coming up March 3-6.

For now, though, WSU seems to be walking a tight rope. CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm says the Shockers have to win the Valley tournament or are likely to be left out of the big dance.

Others aren’t quite so alarmist. Ken Pomeroy has WSU at No. 14 in his RPI, much higher than either ESPN (50), CBS (48) or realtimerpi.com (50). And that was before the Shockers’ went all Harlem Globetrotters against Missouri State on Thursday night at Koch Arena, winning 99-68 and slamming all 10 of their dunks in the game’s first 24 minutes.

While the game lacked intrigue, the Shockers’ NCAA fortunes are filled with the stuff. It’s like an intrigue pie.

The Shockers won 99-68.

If Wichita State were to stumble in any of its remaining three regular-season Valley games against Indiana State, Loyola and Illinois State, the Shockers would almost assuredly have to win in St. Louis to get to the NCAAs.

What about winning out in the regular season and losing in the MVC tournament semis. Nope, probably don’t want that to happen. And while the Shockers might be OK if they just get to the championship game in St. Louis, they might not.

Remember, too, that a lot can happen in the next three weeks. Heck, a lot can happen in the next 24 hours. There isn’t a clear-cut dominant team in the country and probably 20 that can make a compelling case to win a national championship.

The Shockers could well be one of them, which makes the shaky ground they’re operating on so unusual and so interesting.

Wichita State’s issue is the Missouri Valley Conference, which is having a rough season. But the Shockers have dropped a couple of Valley games recently, to Illinois State and Northern Iowa, and those losses put a dent in Wichita State’s RPI.

That RPI has been boosted by a difficult non-conference schedule, but compromised by the fact the Shockers don’t have many wins over high-quality teams.

Gregg Marshall doesn’t like being in a fight like this with a 20-7 team that has won 13 of 15 conference games. But this season, the fight is unavoidable. The Shockers are in tight quarters.

Dominance like Wichita State showed Thursday probably helps. So must four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, including a Sweet 16 and a Final Four. Haven’t the Shockers built enough credibility to get the benefit of the doubt, if there is indeed doubt?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

I know you want a more definitive answer. I know like me, you look at this Shocker team and see a team that could create NCAA Tournament havoc. But the Shockers have to get in first.

Everyone who follows college basketball knows Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, Wichita State’s superb seniors. But they might question what’s behind them.

"In the Missouri Valley Conference, that game equates to like an All-Star game," said Shockers Coach Gregg Marshall following his squad's dunkfest win over Missouri State, 99-68.

Some answers may be starting to crystallize. Sophomores Zach Brown (16 points) and Rashard Kelly (12) had career highs against Missouri State and made 12 of 18 shots. They were also the game’s dunk masters, taking advantage of sloppy Missouri State ball handling and defense to throw down time after time.

Another sophomore, center Shaq Morris, had seven points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes. And HE DIDN’T FOUL ONCE!

I don’t know what a win over Missouri State does to move the needle in the right direction for the Shockers. Maybe nothing. And it’s doubtful that they can get much of an RPI boost on the road against Indiana State (Sunday) and Loyola (Wednesday).

If the Valley was an RPI buffet, it would serve only greens. So there is some logic to the notion that Wichita State has to win out, win six, to reach their final destination.

Yet that seems so unfair. Would a 25-8 Shocker team potentially be left out of March Madness? That would be mad, all right.

This is a situation that is fun to debate, but that has no solution. The only sure way for the Shockers is to go 6-0 and that’s certainly doable. But there aren’t any other 20-7 teams with Wichita State’s recent resume that are in this boat.

Over the course of the next 17 days, we’ll find out whether this boat floats, or whether it sinks. The Shockers are navigating waters that could start to get rough. So far, it’s steady as she goes.

Shockers players Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly, and Ron Baker talk about putting up "atom bombs" in a 99-68 win over Missouri State, and comment on Shaquille Morris' improbable performance with zero fouls in 17 minutes.

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