Big Thought: The difficult life of an elite mid-major

Wichita State has been without star point guard Fred Van Vleet (hamstring) since a Nov. 17 loss at Tulsa. AP Photo/Daniel R. Patmore

Every March, there is a subset of fans who immediately consider all good teams in mid-major conferences overrated. Often, these arguments completely dismiss the quality of the team itself. All that matters is the ability to say, with haughty certainty, that X team from Y mid-major league "would have gone .500 in the Big Ten!" (Why ".500" is always the given outcome and not, say, 10-8 or 8-10, is a mystery for another day.)

There is a resentment in there somewhere, a notion that it's inherently easier to be a high-major hegemon in a mid-major conference. Which, even if it was true, would be weird. Oh well, you know? But it isn't true. Life as an elite team from a mid-major conference is actually much harder.

Take Purdue. At this point last season, the Boilermakers had already lost to North Florida and Kansas State. Before December was out, they would lose to Vanderbilt, Notre Dame (by 31 points), and Gardner-Webb. Then, out of nowhere, the Boilers began to guard, and over the next three months they would go 12-6 in the Big Ten, turning an 8-5 start into a 20-11 finish and a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament.

If Matt Painter's team hailed from the Summit League, and not the Big Ten, that nonconference start would have evaporated any whiff of a hope of an eventual at-large bid. The regular season would have been moot. The opportunity to showcase improvement would not exist. The same exact performance turnaround would have gone unnoticed. The Summit League tournament would have been the only path forward, a remarkable season crudely reduced to three games in three days.

Now take Wichita State. On Wednesday night, the 2015-16 Shockers will play at home against UNLV. This is a big game, because Wichita State -- three years removed from a Final Four, two years removed from a 35-1 season, one year removed from the Sweet 16 -- is, despite all that, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. This is a big game because Wichita State won't get the same chance as Purdue.

After beginning the season in the top 10, a ranking built on the steady excellence of guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the Shockers now sit at 3-4. Of those four losses, only the one on Nov. 17 at Tulsa saw the Shockers at full strength. The three defeats since -- against USC, Alabama and Iowa -- all came with Van Vleet, the sun around which the Shockers orbit, sidelined with a hamstring injury. Without VanVleet, and with Kansas transfer Conor Frankamp not eligible until the spring semester, coach Gregg Marshall has tried freshman Ty Taylor for 30 minutes on Nov. 27 against Alabama before essentially being forced to move Baker to the point and Evan Wessel -- a stout and hardworking rebounder/glue guy with solid perimeter touch, but by no means a guard -- to the backcourt. Forward Anton Grady, victim of a freak collision, was briefly paralyzed against Alabama; relieved doctors later discovered he suffered a spinal concussion. Grady will play again, but no one knows when.

The selection committee accounts for injuries when it considers teams and, as VanVleet's return Saturday showed, Wichita State is a vastly diffrent team with its point guard in the lineup. But the problem is the same: Once conference play begins, the committee won't have much to compare those injuries against. The Valley is a two-bid league at best this season; other than Evansville and Northern Iowa, it is a league of no-win RPI landmines. There are no February home games against Michigan State in the MVC. There are no resume rehabs on this schedule, and zero margin for error.

That's why Wednesday night's otherwise innocuous home game against UNLV is so big, why Saturday's home date with Utah is even bigger, why a Dec. 19 road trip to inconspicuous Seton Hall is crucial: Life as a mid-major, even a mid-major with the Shockers' talent and pedigree, is always much harder than it looks.

What we're thinking about today:

  • That Utah game, by the way, will come after a rare week-long early December break for the Utes, which Larry Krystkowiak, eager to see his team improve, has filled with "a couple practices ... where we're going full-throttle." (Forget rankings. Utah-Wichita State is going to be awesome.)

  • Villanova fans concerned about their team's offensive balance -- specifically the gap between the Wildcats' 3-point shooting volume and their 28.4 percent accuracy on those shots -- should take solace in a relevant statistical analysis by Ken Pomeroy, whose offseason box score dives uncovered that current 3-point percentage wasn't the only statistical indication of a team's future long-range prowess, but that 2-point field goal percentage, free throw accuracy, 3-point attempt rate, and turnovers are, as a group, fairly reliable predictors of a team's future 3-point shooting. And guess what? 'Nova should be fine: "Villanova has been really bad at one of these things (actual 3-point shooting), but the Wildcats have been downright dominant at the other four. They’ve been killing it on 2-pointers, ranking sixth-nationally at 58.3 percent. And at this point in the season, 2-point percentage is just as important as 3-point percentage in predicting future 3-point percentage. Their free throw percentage ranks 85th. They have the third-highest 3-point rate and their turnover rate is third-best in the country."

  • After Saturday's dire home collapse against Arizona, Gonzaga barely survived Montana on Tuesday night, 61-58, which is far too close for comfort. Worse yet was the news after the game, when Mark Few told reporters the back spasms that have sidelined center Przemek Karnowski haven't cleared up.

  • When we weren't putting the finishing touches on our moving day Tuesday, we were stealing glances at the Jimmy V Classic on WatchESPN. Jeff Eisenberg was keeping an eye on SMU, and what he saw was as impressive as ever -- tourney ban or no.

  • Freshman center Diamond Stone had his best game in a Maryland uniform in Tuesday night's win against UConn, Roman Stubbs writes, comprising 16 points, nine rebounds, and some vastly improved interior defense. If Stone's learning curve continues apace, the Terps are going to be scary good.