Shockers, as usual, are favorites to win MVC tourney

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall's Shockers might be the hottest team in the country.
AP

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The favorite to win the Missouri Valley Tournament isn’t even the No. 1 seed.

That’s fine with Wichita State.

The Shockers are seeded second for the conference tournament this week in St. Louis behind Illinois State, which earned the No. 1 seed by having a slightly better RPI. That was the tiebreaker when both finished 17-1 in league play and split their meetings with each winning at home.

But there is little disputing the No. 21 Shockers are the hottest team in the Valley these days, maybe even the country. They’ve ripped off 12 straight wins, most with laughable ease, and routed the Redbirds 86-45 when they met at Koch Arena early last month.

So why are coach Gregg Marshall’s guys OK with staring up at Illinois State in the bracket?

Because nobody relishes having a chip on their shoulder more.

“Our guys have done a nice job of maturing and showing the way,” said Marshall, whose team had few expectations nationally after losing star guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet to the NBA.

“Our team is very, very good,” Marshall insisted, “and will cause teams opposite us in the bracket to say, ‘Oh boy,’ because we’re very, very good again.”

The Missouri Valley Tournament begins Thursday when Evansville faces Indiana State and Bradley takes on Drake. The winner of the opener gets Illinois State in the quarterfinals while the Shockers get the winner of the nightcap. Southern Illinois-Loyola and Northern Iowa-Missouri State are the other two quarterfinal games already set for Thursday at Scottrade Center.

“After Illinois State and Wichita State, there’s a bunch of schools battling like crazy to see if we can knock off one of those guys,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said.

But while the Shockers (27-4) and Redbirds (25-5) have been the class of the conference all season — Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois tied for third with 9-9 league marks — history suggests they should be wary about looking ahead to a championship showdown Sunday.

The top-seeded Shockers were upset in the semifinals a year ago by fourth-seeded Northern Iowa, which proceeded to beat No. 2 seed Evansville for the title. And the year before that, the No. 1 seed Shockers lost to Illinois State in the semifinals as the No. 2 seed Panthers won the title.

The tournament’s top seed hasn’t won the title since Wichita State did it three years ago.

“I think three through 10, the league is better than it’s been,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “When someone looks at the records and says, ‘Well, the rest of the league is down, I think that’s false. I think three through 10 it’s better than it’s been and you have two elite teams.”

That’s part of the reason just getting to the title game may be enough for the Shockers and Redbirds this year. Both have strong RPI numbers and glossy records, and if they can avoid an early upset that gives the committee second thoughts, they should be chosen for the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps the biggest thing at stake is their potential seed.

“History says we need to be scared because we’ve never been done any favors by the selection committee the last four or five years,” Marshall said. “Every year we’re a seed or two lower than we think we should be, and even the year we were a No. 1 seed, we had that great Kentucky team.

“I don’t know the criteria they’re going to use this year. They say there are going to more analytics next year. My question is, ‘Why wait?’ But I just have to say, you have to watch our team, and if you can’t decipher we’re not one of the top 30, 35 at-large teams, maybe you need to let your spot on the selection committee go to someone else, because it’s a no-brainer.”