There was only one problem with Sunday’s Kentucky- Wichita State thriller: It happened about seven days too early.
Thanks to the NCAA tournament selection committee’s criminal decision to award a No. 10 seed to a 31-4 Shockers team that was viewed as one of the best in the country, a game that could have been played in the Final Four and should only have been played in a regional final or, at worst, in a Thursday or Friday Sweet 16 matchup, was contested in the early afternoon of a crowded Sunday of second-round basketball. It was a delightful shame – the great game that should have never been played. These are two teams that should be in the Sweet 16 right now, prepping for possible classics in the regional semis or finals. They’re two of the best team in the country. And now there’s only one.
At least the Wildcats and Shockers put on the show we all hoped for and expected, with a tight, defensive battle, giving the tournament the entertaining 40-minute game it’d lacked through the first three days. It was close throughout, neither team getting out to a lead more than a few points, and appropriately came down to the final seconds when Kentucky blocked two shots, the first of which would have given Wichita a lead with 12 seconds and the second which would have forced overtime in the most unfortunate meeting of the 2017 tourney.
This was just the second time in NCAA history that two 30-win teams were pitted against each other on the first weekend of the tournament, a slap in the face to both Kentucky and Wichita, who both had regular seasons that should have prevented such an early game against a worthy adversary. Wichita State was ranked No. 7 in KenPom (the premiere efficiency ratings in college basketball) but was deemed the 39th best team in the tournament and given that lowly No. 10 seed. (Kentucky had been No. 5 in KenPom, by the way.) Then, rather than getting in a bracket with more beatable No. 2 seeds such as Arizona or Louisville, Wichita instead got two-seed that’d handed them their most painful loss ever.
Back in 2014 the Shockers finished the season undefeated, going 34-0 entering the tournament. They were rightfully given a top seed but unbelievably had Kentucky drawn into the same pod. This time, it was the Wildcats who were wildly under-seeded, quite a reward for a team that was the first team in 23 years to enter the tournament without a loss. “Congrats on your once-in-a-lifetime season. Now go beat once of the most successful programs in history to just make the Sweet 16.” It’s like giving a kid a car and telling him he can only keep it if he finishes the Daytona 500.
The teams were in opposite situations this year, minus the whole pursuit of unblemished history thing. The result was the same: Wichita’s season was ended by Kentucky, thus feeding into the false narrative that mid-majors* are inferior to power schools and creating a self-fulfilling seeding prophecy. The non-power schools are seeded poorly and thus given harder games earlier in the tournament that they lose, theoretically confirming to the powers-that-be that the seeds were right to begin with and completing the circle of basketball bias.
* Wichita State is anything but a mid-major, by the way. One of any number of examples: The team pays coach Gregg Marshall a salary of $3 million, which is the ninth-highest in college basketball. That’s more than Jay Wright, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Mark Few.
But the Shockers did indeed prove that the No. 10 seed was a travesty. In (the littlest form of) fairness, it can be hard to know where to put schools such as Wichita and Gonzaga. When the calendar hits January, their schedules turn as soft as the conferences in which they play. It takes history (going undefeated or finishing with a loss) to get the top seedings and anything else is an excuse to treat them the same as the seventh best Big Ten school. This year, a No. 4 or No. 5 would have been appropriate. Even a No. 6 would’ve been okay. Everything from the seven line and under was ridiculous.
Wichita State just missed completely showing up the selection committee. Either way, they proved the haters wrong and delivered the best 40 minutes of the first four days of the tournament. In an event that’s been more bad than mad, a few finishes have thrilled but the games themselves have been uneven. The frequent scenario has been one team taking a big early lead and another making a comeback. The finishes may be good, but it’s preceded by 35 minutes of two teams playing at wild levels of variance and almost never well at the same time. The Shockers and Wildcats were different, playing a vast majority of the game within one score of each other and keeping the game unpredictable until the finish.
Don’t cry for Wichita though. Yes, they were jobbed by the committee, again, but they were going to have to beat Kentucky at some point if they were going to make it back to the Final Four or win a championship. The team was good enough to do both. After Sunday, maybe the selection committee will finally realize it.