Wichita State might be the only undefeated team left in Division I, but a pedestrian strength of schedule seems to be keeping it from the top of the national rankings and the UPS Performance Index.
Florida remained one spot ahead of the Shockers by claiming the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll for the first time since repeating as national champion in 2007, although both schools still have a way to go to catch Arizona in the Index.
In conjunction with STATS LLC, UPS has created a proprietary algorithm that gauges data covering the spectrum of a team’s on-court performance. Highlighted statistics include effective field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency and miscues.
After being combined with winning percentage and strength-of-schedule metrics, the numbers are normalized and an overall index is created for all 345 NCAA Division I teams. The scores are not meant to reflect a traditional power poll, per se, but measure a broad range of excellence and overall balance.
Ranked second in the AP poll for the first time since Xavier McDaniel was a freshman in 1981-82, Wichita State is the first team to go 29-0 since Illinois in 2004-05. Yet even if the Shockers win at Bradley and beat Missouri State at home this week to conclude a perfect regular season, they will need Florida (25-2) to slip at Vanderbilt or against LSU to knock the Gators from the top spot.
Both schools moved up one place in the poll this week after previous No. 1 Syracuse suffered its first two losses — 62-59 to Boston College in overtime at home Wednesday and 66-60 at then-No. 5 Duke on Saturday in another instant classic between the schools. The Gators received 47 first-place votes while the Shockers got 14.
Riding a school-record 19-game winning streak, the Gators are 1.98 points ahead of the third-place Shockers in the Index, but trail Arizona (25-2) by a sizable 3.83.
"This team understands that the whole is greater than its parts," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "But we need to play better and I’m talking about that from an effort standpoint."
Florida needed a strong second-half defensive effort on Mississippi star Marshall Henderson to pull out a 75-71 road win Saturday. The senior guard went 7 of 14 from the field — including 5 of 11 from 3-point range — for 22 points over the first 20 minutes, which ended with the teams tied at 42. But the Gators clamped down and held Henderson scoreless the rest of the way.
"All I can say is we’re focused more (late in the game), we’re more together and more connected," Florida guard Michael Frazier II said. "That’s something we pride ourselves on. We want to become stronger when the adversity becomes stronger."
A stronger strength of schedule is likely the major reason the Gators are ranked ahead of the Shockers in the poll and the Index.
Florida plays in the historically tough SEC and is 3-2 against Top 25 opponents this season. Wichita State, on the other hand, has yet to face a ranked team and resides in the modest Missouri Valley Conference, which was further weakened by the exit of Creighton to the Big East in the offseason. The Gators rank seventh in quality of opponent within the Index (105.71) while the Shockers are 86th (101.15).
Regardless, Wichita State leads every other team in the most important category — winning percentage.
Some who have seen the Shockers up close believe they’re a more complete group than last season’s 30-9 squad that made an impressive run to the national semifinals.
"It’s a much better basketball team now than it was at that time," said Drake coach Ray Giacoletti, who watched as a Gonzaga assistant last March when the Shockers beat the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs 76-70 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"I’ve been doing this 29 years and have been around a lot of great teams that try to outscore you and out-talent you. This team tries to out-tough you in every single facet and really doesn’t care about the other stuff."
Paced by four players averaging at least 10.4 points per game, Wichita State moved up two spots in the Index after clinching the MVC regular-season title with victories last week over Loyola of Chicago and Drake by a combined 43 points.
"Hopefully," coach Gregg Marshall said, "this isn’t our only championship."
While the Shockers continue their gradual climb up the Index, Virginia’s three-spot improvement to No. 9 was the biggest surge within the top 10. Kansas and Louisville each dropped one spot to fourth and fifth, respectively.
Wisconsin, Villanova and Creighton remained in spots 6-8. Duke rounded out the top 10.
A winner of four in a row and 10 of 12 since starting 4-11, High Point of the Big South Conference made the biggest leap of the week, 44 spots to 199.
Eastern Michigan ranks first in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage (36.6) and third defensively in the Index, but lost at Northern Illinois and Western Michigan to suffer the week’s largest fall, 29 positions to 148.