The Wichita State Shockers present an interesting dilemma to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee this year. Of course, the committee has dilemmas every year, but those dilemmas are fairly standard. Bubble teams have resumes the committee must parse through and compare. Teams have to be judged. Then, at the end of the process, teams’ resumes are slotted in order. The top 36 at-large teams get in. Everyone else doesn’t.
That sounds relatively simple. Of course, putting the teams in order is far from easy, but it is the job the committee always has to do. It’s what committee members sign up for and (unless your team is one that ends up on the outside) what they are good at.
Enter Wichita State in 2016.
Wichita State is a talented team. There is no question about that. Watching the Shockers tells us that they are definitely one of the best 36 teams in the country–especially once we exclude conference tournament champions. However, when we look at their resume, we start to run into a bit of trouble.
First of all, Wichita State has only one bad loss. For a “mid-major” trying to win an at-large bid, avoiding those bad losses in-conference is vital. The Shockers lost two games in Missouri Valley play, but one of them was to Northern Iowa, a team currently just inside the all-important and only-slightly-arbitrary Top-100 RPI cutoff line. The other loss, a road loss to Illinois State, qualifies as a “bad loss” because the Redbirds currently sit six spots below that cutoff line.
Still, as far as a lack of losses goes, the Shockers definitely have a leg up on most teams in this year’s bubble. That is not what will cause the selection committee to think outside the box. What will give the selection committee problems is WSU’s lack of quality wins.
Wichita State actually has four Top-100 RPI wins, a number well above the threshold necessary to be considered as an at-large. However, a 1-5 record against the Top 50 is rarely enough to get a team into the tournament. A 4-6 record against the Top 100 is in the range where a “mid-major” gets serious consideration, but it is far from a guarantee to get in the tournament. Remember, if the Shockers are in the bubble conversation it means they are picking up another loss in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
The big problem for Wichita State is that, when you look at the Shockers’ resume more closely, it gets a little weaker. Yes, there are four wins against the Top 100, but three of them are against teams in the 90-100 range. They are only 1-5 against the Top 90. Being 12-7 against the Top 150 stacks up favorably against just about everyone else in this bubble, but the lack of top-end wins is seriously disconcerting. Wichita State has exactly one win of any value–a resounding home win over Utah. Still, parlaying just one win into a tournament bid is always a risky proposition.
Usually when “mid-majors” earn an at-large with one good win, it is because of a high RPI and a dearth of losses. The Shockers, meanwhile, have seven losses and an RPI in the mid-40s. Is that win over Utah really enough to counter all of that?
Of course, the committee will have to factor in the injury to Fred VanVleet. The Wichita State leader missed the three games–all of them losses–against Alabama, USC, and Iowa. Of course, the injuries can’t mean that those losses are treated as wins. At best, the committee would just ignore them. It’s hard to say exactly how much his absence affected those losses, because the Shockers also lost games to Tulsa, Seton Hall, and Northern Iowa with him in the lineup.
No, as pure bubble resumes go, Wichita State is firmly on the middle of the bubble and pretty close to being on the wrong side of the cut line, possibly already past it.
Enter Ken Pomeroy.
KenPom currently has Wichita State as the seventh-best team in the country, including the No. 1 team in defensive efficiency. What Wichita State lacks in resume strength it more than makes up for in advanced metrics. That is why the Shockers present such a fascinating dilemma to the selection committee.
If we are going to judge teams based on their ability to actually win the tournament, Wichita State probably deserves somewhere around a 3 seed. If we are judging purely on resume, the Shockers might not belong in the tournament. When we combine the two, we end up with a situation that is unfair for everyone.
Conventional wisdom has the Shockers in the 7-10 seed range, which — while that might be where they belong — would be an absolute nightmare for whatever 1- or 2-seed they get to play in the second round. No one wants to play Wichita State.
Of course, giving Wichita State a high seed is an untenable proposition. The resume, unless KenPom suddenly becomes the be-all end-all in ranking teams, can’t justify that. Yet, it has to be considered as a serious possibility. Similarly, if the Shockers lose in Arch Madness, keeping them out of the tournament is untenable. Yet, when judging the resumes, it has to be considered as a serious possibility.
Before concluding, let’s say this much about the Missouri Valley Tournament and its place in shaping this bubble discussion: The Shockers — if relegated to the at-large pool — would stand on much firmer terrain if they lose in the MVC championship game, compared to the quarterfinals. We’ll have to wait and see if this dilemma emerges, but when (and to whom) Wichita State loses in St. Louis will have some bearing on this debate.
I don’t believe Wichita State will be left out of the tournament, even with a loss in the MVC Tournament. The team is too good. It would beat a lot of teams that would get at-larges and everyone knows it. Still, there will be some very nervous moments in Wichita if the Shockers don’t secure that automatic bid.
There will be very nervous moments for all of high seeds on Selection Sunday until they see that the Shockers aren’t placed directly in their first-weekend pod.