On Tuesday night, Wichita State justified its No. 12 ranking and might have made a case for elevation.
The Shockers’ 75-62 win over BYU in the CBE Classic in Kansas City was a boost for the Missouri Valley Conference favorites.
The Cougars have been one of the toughest squads in the country in the first chapter of the 2013-14 season. Tyler Haws (26.0 PPG) is the best player on a Cougars team that beat Stanford on the road and nearly knocked off nationally ranked Iowa State at home last week. But they couldn’t finish Wichita State even though the Shockers were shaky early.
A Fred VanVleet 3-pointer helped the Shockers separate in the final minutes. But the 13-point margin of victory is not an accurate depiction of the true battle that unfolded between the two squads.
The final result only seemed lopsided because a Nate Austin flagrant foul in the last minute of the game led to a greater cushion for the Shockers. But things were tight throughout.
Gregg Marshall lost some key pieces from last year’s Final Four team, including former starting point guard Malcolm Armstead. But Cleanthony Early was an honorable mention on the Associated Press All-American preseason squad. VanVleet, a former top-100 recruit, has been fluid in his transition to a starting point guard role. And Ron Baker (game-high 23 points on Tuesday) is a star now that he’s healthy.
Entering Tuesday’s matchup, the Shockers were 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
It’s easy to forget how close the Shockers came to a national championship last season. With 13:40 to play in that Final Four matchup in Atlanta, Wichita State had a 12-point lead over Louisville. The Shockers lost 72-68, but the admirable effort seemed more impressive after Louisville won the national title.
But the Shockers didn’t receive the VCU treatment after last year’s Final Four.
They’re not the new Butler. They’re not viewed that way, at least.
Past mid-major darlings became top storylines in the months that followed their surprising postseason rallies. Not so much for Wichita State.
That’s because there are fabulous freshmen all over the country. Some talented second-year standouts -- see Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart -- are out there, too.
There are new rules. New leagues.
The national radar is crowded.
Marshall’s program was ranked 16th in the AP and USA Today Coaches preseason polls.
Syracuse lost Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche. Michigan lost Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and NBA first-round pick Tim Hardaway Jr. Louisville lost Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva.
Wichita State was the only member of last season’s Final Four that failed to earn a top-10 slot in the preseason polls.
With matchups against St. Louis and Tennessee in the coming weeks, Wichita State will have opportunities to garner more national attention and potentially convert doubters who might think that last year’s Final Four run was a fluke, as both will be tough tests for the Shockers.
But then they’ll enter a watered-down Missouri Valley Conference that no longer features Creighton, a former mid-major powerhouse.
Without Creighton on their slate, the Shockers won’t get a ton of credit even if they torch the MVC.
And if they lose to Saint Louis and/or Tennessee in the coming weeks, the voters might kick them out of the top 25 and banish them until they prove something in the postseason.
The win over BYU on Tuesday night, however, should boost Wichita State’s national standing in terms of the teams viewed as legit national title contenders.
You’d think that the Shockers did enough to earn that tag in Atlanta last season.
Yet, here they are still seeking a slice of the spotlight. They deserve it.
But they might have to make another NCAA tournament run to get it.