Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: With NCAA chances all over the bracket, Shockers can dispel all doubt with good St. Louis weekend

Coach Gregg Marshall, Ron Baker and the Shockers raised the MVC Tournament trophy in 2014, but it’s the only time WSU has left St. Louis with the hardware.
Coach Gregg Marshall, Ron Baker and the Shockers raised the MVC Tournament trophy in 2014, but it’s the only time WSU has left St. Louis with the hardware. The Wichita Eagle

This city has always been a confusing place for Wichita State’s basketball team and this year is no different.

Ken Pomeroy, the man all Shocker fans propose a toast to, has WSU ranked No. 8 in his kempom.com rankings, ahead of Xavier, Iowa, Iowa State, Maryland… the list goes on.

Meanwhile, Jerry Palm — and dadgummit, we really hate Jerry Palm — has the Shockers as a No. 11 seed in the Midwest Regional in his latest bracket projections.

Can we be honest? If Palm’s low seed makes no sense — and there is a case to be made that it doesn’t — then can’t we also admit that under no reasonable formula should the Shockers be ranked eighth?

Somewhere in the middle lurks reality. And perhaps it’s a reality that will be realized this weekend at the Scottrade Center, where once since 1991 have Wichita State basketball fans left the building in good moods on a Sunday afternoon.

What does WSU have to accomplish this weekend in St. Louis to lock up an NCAA Tournament berth, short of winning the tournament? It’s the million-dollar question and the way to get beyond it is for the Shockers to win three games.

Just one problem: The Shockers rarely win three in a row here. It happened in 2014 and that’s it. Last year, Wichita State lost to Illinois State in the semifinals.

There is good news. Wichita State has played in three of the past six MVC Tournament championship games after missing out on such an experience the previous 19 years. But it’s not like the Shockers sweep into St. Louis and the Mississippi River parts, despite a 51-3 regular-season run through the Valley the past three years.

Are they more than just another team when it comes to March Madness? Heck, will they even get in if they happen to lose here in the quarterfinals or semifinals?

Just how safe is Wichita State?

The eyeball test tells you that the Shockers are more than qualified to play in the NCAA Tournament. They were in a Final Four as recently as 2013. They took top-seeded Kentucky to the wire in a thrilling tournament game in 2014. They knocked off Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 in 2015.

But this season, Wichita State lost three games in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando more than three months ago and they’ve had a terrible time getting past that.

The Shockers lost to USC, Alabama and Iowa without point guard Fred VanVleet, who was nursing a leg injury. Anton Grady missed much of the Alabama game and all of the Iowa game. Conner Frankamp wasn’t yet eligible after transferring from Kansas.

VanVleet wasn’t nearly 100 percent during losses to Tulsa and Seton Hall, either. So, five of WSU’s seven losses have come with VanVleet limping or sitting out.

What’s it all mean? Does the NCAA selection committee take injuries like that into account?

The NCAA says it does, but what goes on inside the selection room definitely stays inside the selection room. RPIs and strength of schedule and many other formulas are taken into account.

At the end of the day, though, it is human beings who are making choices, the way human beings have done since our brains developed enough to be able to choose from multiple options.

There are good choices and there are bad choices.

The Shockers, of course, hope to take any choice out of the equation. And given that they’ve dominated the Valley again, minus hiccups against Illinois State on the road and Northern Iowa at home, that’s the most likely scenario.

Until you throw the St. Louis Factor into the mix. And say what you want, it’s a factor.

With a team like this, one led by iconic seniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the last thing Gregg Marshall, his players and the team’s fans should be fretting about is the Shockers’ NCAA Tournament fortunes.

There’s a decent chance people are working themselves up over nothing and allowing guys like Palm, who as far as I know has nothing against Wichita State but is simply doing the job he’s paid to do, to get inside their heads.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi calls the Shockers a lock for an at-large bid.

And dwell on the Pomeroy formula, which cites defensive efficiency — points allowed per 100 possessions — as WSU’s go-to statistic. The Shockers, in fact, rank No. 1 in that category after ranking 25th, 12th and 15th the past three seasons and ranking 17th, fifth and 10th overall.

Palm, meanwhile, detracts heavily from Wichita State for playing in the Missouri Valley Conference. So do I, but not like this guy.

According to the CBSsports.com’s RPI, the Shockers’ non-conference strength of schedule is fifth-best in the country. It’s overall strength of schedule is 101, which means it regards the Valley as a glorified YMCA league.

So, this could be a pins and needles weekend for Wichita State fans. And unless WSU wins the tournament championship, it’d probably be a good idea to pour yourself a vodka martini as you watch Selection Sunday on March 13.

Because there’s just no telling.

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