On Wednesday, ESPN.com will roll out its preseason Power Rankings. Next week, the first AP poll of the season will be unveiled. A case can be made for a host of teams to be No. 1. Here is the case for Wichita State to have the top spot.
Just because Wichita State won't actually be No. 1 in any preseason poll doesn't mean the Shockers don't have a very good case for that honor.
Never mind the No. 10 seed (I still can't type that with a straight face) that Gregg Marshall's team was given by the NCAA in March. The facts of the matter are plain: Wichita State was one of the best teams in the country last season, and now the Shockers have, effectively, everyone coming back.
In the offseason, Daishon Smith elected to transfer to Louisiana Monroe, after averaging 15 minutes and five points per game in Wichita last season. That being said, every other player who saw significant playing time for Marshall in 2016-17 is back for 2017-18. In other words, this is a team that returns its top eight scorers.
Or, if it helps, think of WSU this way. Everyone understood last season that Gonzaga was one of the best teams in the nation, even though its conference, the WCC, was not particularly strong top to bottom. We should make that same cognitive leap with the Shockers, who played in a Missouri Valley that was a hair stronger, statistically, than the West Coast. Wichita State outscored the Valley by a whopping 0.29 points per trip.
Of course, now the Shockers can be found in the American. You may hear speculation over whether Marshall's guys can run the table in their new league, and certainly that speculation is helped along by the fact that this season Cincinnati will be playing "home" games across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky's arena.
Going 18-0 in the American is not out of the question for Wichita State, but, even in the (more likely) event that the Shockers fall short of that goal, this projects to be an unusually accomplished team on both sides of the ball. After all, these same players showed that look last season.
Start with the offense, which is arguably the strength of an exceptionally strong team. While Lonzo Ball and UCLA were busy lighting up the Pac-12 for 1.20 points per possession in 2016-17, WSU was recording virtually the same figure (1.21) against the admittedly weaker MVC. Now we'll see what kind of numbers Landry Shamet, Shaquille Morris and Markis McDuffie can put up against the American.
Assuming Shamet returns full-speed from his offseason foot injury, he will again lead an offense that has shown it can hit shots from both sides of the arc while taking excellent care of the ball. Morris and McDuffie are both good offensive rebounders, and together they combined to shoot 81 percent at the line last season.
While McDuffie is scheduled to be out until December with a foot injury of his own, that setback could free up more playing time for Rashard Kelly. The 6-foot-7 senior may be the best offensive rebounder on the roster, and on the few occasions when one of Conner Frankamp's 3s misses the mark, Kelly can often be found dug in on the weak side for a second-chance opportunity.
On defense, Wichita State has long been known for its unrelenting and suffocating ways. Indeed, Marshall has made a specialty out of doing something you're not really supposed to be able to do. The Shockers both defend the rim with tenacity and limit opponents to just one shot.
Who knows, maybe this second ability was exaggerated to an extent by nine other Missouri Valley teams that, throughout Marshall's tenure, were famously averse to even trying for offensive rebounds. That won't be the case in the American. The aforementioned Bearcats and SMU, to name but two upcoming opponents, love to crash the offensive glass. The collisions between a proven WSU defense and a new and more challenging set of league opponents promise to be well worth watching.
True, before vouchsafing this team as a national championship contender, people will want to raise the NBA question and ask if Marshall's talent is truly "elite." Fair enough. No player on the Wichita State roster is currently projected as a 2018 first- or second-round pick.
Without invoking the ghost of Duke in 2010 (which won a national title without any players being selected in that summer's draft), one might point out that former Shocker Ron Baker also wasn't taken in the first round. Actually, he wasn't taken in the second round, either. Just the same, the last time I saw Baker he was getting regular minutes for the Knicks. NBA talent really is a good thing, and sometimes that talent proves itself later rather than sooner. Don't necessarily write off a team that hasn't proven it yet.
If the Shockers had received a seed anywhere within five lines of accuracy last March, who knows, maybe that team goes to the Elite Eight or further. In that case, it would hardly be startling to say that a team that made it that far and now brings (almost) everyone back deserves a look at No. 1.
As it happens, that's arguably the most accurate way to think about Wichita State. The men's basketball committee gave WSU what amounted on paper to a coin-toss game against Kentucky in the round of 32 instead of in a regional final. Sure enough, the contest was decided by three points. Now all those Shockers are back, and soon they'll all be healthy.
Wichita State certainly won't start the season at No. 1, but don't be surprised if the Shockers end it there.