Never mind the score, never mind the details: Wichita's Shockers look like a No. 1 seed
The Shockers might not be taking the most glamorous route to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they are bound to get there eventually.
Gregg Marshall's Shockers are looking to become the first team since Saint Joseph's in 2004 to finish the regular season with a perfect record.
Peter Aiken / USA TODAY Sports
By Sean Keeler
So you see Wichita State 78, Southern Illinois 67 -- well, actually, you probably don't, you just sniff a few highlights and go back to watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show or "New Girl" -- and you say to yourself:
"Well, THAT's not a No. 1 seed. Shouldn't a No. 1 seed be playing teams I've actually heard of? And what is a Saluki, anyway?"
And with that, you flip back to the dog show.
A Saluki is a sort of Middle Eastern greyhound, believed to be the oldest domesticated breed in the world. And the rest of your argument, frankly, is full of Puppy Chow.
Conventional wisdom says the No. 4 Shockers haven't (make air quotes here, kids) "played anyone," that 26-0 is some MacGyver-eqsue construct of a paper clip, two plastic Slinkys and some chewing gum.
For one, to say that assumes Saint Louis (Rating Percentage Index rank: 17), Tennessee (RPI: 50) and BYU (RPI: 44), none of whom the Shockers BEAT ON THEIR HOME FLOOR, WHICH ALSO HAPPENS TO BE LOUDER THAN A STINKING LEARJET TAKING OFF, are a bunch of ... nobodies.
For another, there's precedent. Of the four so-called "mid-majors" to receive No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament over the last 10 years, here's how their scheduling profiles compare with coach Gregg Marshall's crew:
* The Saint Joeseph's Hawks of 2003-04? The last regular-season unbeaten in Division I? Fourteen wins over a team with an RPI rank of 101 or lower. One seed.
* The Memphis Tigers of 2005-06? Eighteen wins over a team with an RPI rank of 101 or lower. One seed.
* The Memphis Tigers of 2007-'08? Eighteen wins over a team with an RPI rank of 101 or lower. One seed.
* The Gonzaga Bulldogs of last winter? Nineteen wins over a team with an RPI rank of 101 or lower. One seed.
* The Shockers of now? Twenty wins, to date, over a team with an RPI rank of 101 or lower.
Because here's the juice: The portion of cupcakes on Wichita's diet really isn't all that much greater than the Hawks, Tigers (twice) or Bulldogs that came before them.
Now, granted, some cupcakes go down a little smoother, shall we say, than others.
Yes, the Shockers "struggled" (more air quotes) with SIU at home; yes, the Salukis sport a record of 10-16 with an unsightly RPI rank of 205; and, yes, this is an SIU crew made most famous by two off-court incidents, namely coach Barry Hinson's postgame rant of the decade Dec. 17 ("My wife! MY WIFE!"), and the fact their team bus got stranded in a ditch a few weeks later thanks to snow-covered roads on the way home from Illinois State.
Of course, the Salukis also happened to be the second-hottest team in the Missouri Valley Conference before Tuesday night (when the lead dog in the pack is 26-0 overall and 13-0 in the loop, everything good tends to be a distant second), riding into the Roundhouse on the backs of a four-game winning streak.
Hinson may come off as an Ozark Joe Pesci, but this isn't the man's first rodeo, either, having piloted Missouri State to almost-greatness a decade earlier. Defensively, a tight, sagging zone clogged the Koch Arena paint. On the offensive end, quick guards Anthony Beane (25 points, three assists, four steals), Desmar Jackson (13 points, seven rebounds) and Jalen Pendleton (13 points, four boards) took turns running circles around the Wichita defense.
"They had a great game plan," Marshall told the Associated Press after the game. "They packed it in and we didn't make any shots from the arc. It was a good strategy."
The Shox whiffed on 12 of their 14 first-half attempts from beyond the arc and on 19 of 27 tries on the evening. Meanwhile, SIU dribble penetrated tiny little holes into the Shockers' front line, death by a thousand pin-pricks. The Salukis even out-angried the Play-Angry Gang underneath early on, outrebounding the hosts by two at the break, 13-11.
Wichita has a tendency to occasionally brain-cramp in the first half, but was slow Tuesday even by its standards. The Shockers turned it over on seven occasions in the game's first 17 minutes; this from a team that typically gives it up just 10.4 times per contest.
Fred VanVleet (10 first-half minutes) and second-half hero Ron Baker (19 points, five assists) sat much of the first half with two fouls, and forward Cleanthony Early (18 points, four boards) joined them in the final few minutes of the period. VanVleet, the sophomore point guard who scores a dozen per game, didn't register a point until a free throw with 6:35 left in the contest.
So, yes, win No. 26 was a slog. The MVC is a slog league, sometimes.
The details are window dressing and the bottom line remains the same: The later this run goes, the closer Marshall's ship of hypotheticals gets to reaching reality's shore. As of early Tuesday evening, among the 74 mock tourney pools across the Web and aggregated by BracketMatrix.com, the average seed for the Shockers was 1.36; that was the fourth-best average in the field and, therefore, the last No. 1 seed. (Kansas had the next-best average at 1.74, tied with Villanova, and thus projected as the top No. 2.)
What's true in February is true in March, too: It's not about how you start. It's about how you finish. Five more games. History awaits, arms open wide.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.