Wichita State's feat stands apart
February, 26, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Let's start with the thing itself: On Tuesday night, in Peoria, Ill., Wichita State did something no college basketball team has ever done: start 30-0 in the regular season.
It is an epochal accomplishment, one that places the Shockers alongside the great UNLV teams of the early 1990s, Larry Bird-era Indiana State and 1975-76 Indiana -- the last undefeated team in college hoops history. Wichita State will be a heavy favorite against Missouri State on Saturday and in every game they play in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. It is more likely than not that they will wake up on Selection Sunday every bit as perfect as they are right now.
That is a great work of college basketball art. A 30-0 start holds up in a vacuum. It spans circumstances and eras. It is worthy of appreciation with zero qualifications attached. When you strip everything else away, the Wichita State Shockers are the most straightforward of pleasures: a great basketball team that plays great basketball and wins every time it takes the floor.
It's the debate around Wichita State that makes things so complicated.
The Shockers aren't perfecting their art in a vacuum, of course; they aren't Emily Dickinson. They're playing Division I college basketball in late February before a great buzzing hive of viewers, and late February is when we argue about everything -- about who's on the tournament bubble, who's in and out, and who really deserves those four No. 1 seeds. And the terms of this debate have already been drawn.
On one side, there are the skeptics who scoff at Wichita State's conference schedule, who see just one notable win in their 30 (at Saint Louis), who think the Shockers' ability to beat bad teams isn't worth rewarding with a top tournament seed over battle-tested teams such as Kansas. On the other side are the defenders, who remind everyone that Saint Louis hasn't lost since WSU came to town, who believe 30-0 is a feat regardless of foe and who note -- according to ESPN Stats & Info -- that each of the previous four teams in the Associated Press poll era that followed a Final Four appearance with a 30-0 start (including postseason games) made it back to the Final Four the following season.
AP Photo/ Stephen HaasDebate about schedule strength aside, what Ron Baker and Wichita State have accomplished by going 30-0 is phenomenal.
At first glance, this debate feels like an annoying, jumped-up reprise of the Gonzaga No. 1-seed "pretender" nonsense of a season ago -- full of people tuning in just in time to diminish the accomplishments of a team outside their favorite league. Good times.
It's actually a lot more instructive than that. Indeed, the back-and-forth about Wichita State's No. 1 worthiness helps us better understand the state of the sport itself.
For starters: College basketball is still a land of inequality. After a decade predicting the "rise" of the "mid-major," it is still no easier for very good teams from non-"power six" leagues to get a fair scheduling shake. Wichita State can't get pure home-and-home deals with elite programs. Gregg Marshall has all but begged Kansas to schedule his program; there's no good financial or institutional reason for the Jayhawks to give it even a passing thought.
On Tuesday, ESPN's Jeff Goodman suggested the Shockers alleviate this problem by offering opponents two road games in exchange for one home trip. He's right. That might help. But why should a team that barely missed a spot in the national title game 10 months ago have to pay $200 just to get $100 back? Our much-cited parity exists in March, but at the scheduling board, the biggest leagues still run the show.
Which brings us to the other thing Wichita State's schedule tells us about the game at large: On the court, the game has never been more stratified. Conference realignment has consolidated the vast share of the top teams into seven leagues. A few years ago, the Colonial Athletic Association earned four bids; two of those teams (George Mason and VCU) now play in the Atlantic 10. In three years, Butler went from the Horizon League to the Big East. Conference USA is a shell of its former self. The bubble has never been softer than it is this season because there are so few at-large candidates from outside the biggest leagues. This is a major, long-term shift.
And some leagues just straight up aren't having good seasons. The Missouri Valley Conference is one of them. This is part of the debate the skeptics have right: The MVC is awful this season.
Tuesday night at Bradley, there were dozens of possessions that made Wichita State look like it was playing an overseas August exhibition against 16-year-old European club trainees. An unbeaten team's 30th win has never felt more perfunctory.
Should that matter to the selection committee? How much? Why don't people recognize how good Saint Louis is? What is the value of merely not losing a game, relative to the value of a historically brutal schedule like Kansas'? Are we so sure Wichita State really is one of the four best teams in the country? Should the proven success of a season ago factor at all into this discussion?
These are complicated questions. There is merit in responses both for and against. There is nuance to work through here. Properly contextualized, the Wichita State debate is worth having -- it's not often one example can throw the sport's whole essence into such stark relief.
Fortunately, none of this changes the pure nature of the thing itself: 30-0. Whatever you make of the Shockers' season, and whatever happens in the weeks to come, there is no altering the simple fact of a team that has played 30 college basketball games and won them all.
Eventually, we'll forget about everything else. But 30-0? That will last.