Last unbeaten team’s advice to Wichita State? Stay hungry, stay humble
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Heads up, Shockers: The hard part isn’t so much the target on your backs as it is the microphones in your earhole.
"I think the hardest thing was just, I think once we got to around 20 (straight) wins, then kind of the ESPN, the national media picks it up and it’s difficult, because you’re in the spotlight," says Pat Carroll, the stellar 3-point specialist with the 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s bunch that opened the season 27-0 — 10 years later, still the last major-college program to pull off an undefeated regular season.
"And I remember, we played Rhode Island our 26th game, at Rhode Island; they were a real tough rival in our conference. And we were either losing or tied with under a minute left (and) we’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, we CANNOT LOSE THIS GAME.’ I think the pressure did pick up as the season went on and on. And it is tough."
Carroll says it will be for Wichita State, too; it’s the nature of the beast. The fifth-ranked Shockers are on those Hawks’ heels (or is it talons?), at 18-0, perfect with 13 Missouri Valley Conference tests to go — starting with a visit from the consensus second-best team in the loop, Indiana State (13-3, 4-0 heading into Wednesday night), this weekend at The Roundhouse.
"I think staying in the moment is key," offers Rob Sullivan, a sophomore walk-on with those unbeaten Hawks and currently St. Joe’s director of basketball operations.
"No matter how much of the national media attention that goes to the Wichita State program, I think they need to stay focused and concentrate on what got them to begin the season 18-0. And I think the less they deviate from that philosophy, off the court and on the court, and hold each other to those same standards and expectations, I think that’s the key."
I think that, looking back, it is a lot of pressure.
Pat Carroll, 2003-04 Saint Joseph's team
Is it possible? Hell, yes, it’s possible. TeamRankings.com pegs the Shockers with a 12.9 percent chance of running the table — the best odds, by far, of any of the three remaining Division I unbeatens (Arizona: 5.1 percent; Syrcause: 0.2 percent). Of their remaining league games, according to TR.com, there are only three in which coach Gregg Marshall’s crew doesn’t have at least an 84 percent chance of winning: at Drake on Jan. 25 (69.8 percent), at Indiana State on Feb. 5 (66.5) and at Northern Iowa on Feb. 8 (61.6).
The intangibles add up, too. The Shockers are experienced (No. 3 in the Valley in terms of percentage of minutes played by upperclassmen relative to overall minutes, behind only the Sycamores and Bulldogs). They’re deep. They’re physical. They defend like piranhas, ranking 16th in the nation in opponent shooting percentage from the floor (43.2) and 17th in points per game allowed (61.7).
They’ve got a roster with Final Four mileage and a coach with Final Four scars. And they’re hungry. Hungry to prove that last year’s surprise run to the top of Mount Bracketville wasn’t some crazy fluke.
"I think they have similar (traits) to ’03-04 (St. Joe’s)," Sullivan says. "A great unselfishness, and all of the personnel on their roster understand their roles. And I think when you have that role acceptance, the results will come."
It won’t be easy, though, something Marshall knows full well. Valley teams scout the living snot out of their league brethren; more often than not, they know what you’re going to do before you even bother to try it.
Since the almighty Larry Bird Indiana State team of ’78-79, only one other Valley squad — the ’85-86 Hersey Hawkins Bradley bunch — has gone through league play unbeaten. And only one other team has survived the gauntlet with just one league loss since ’79 — Southern Illinois in ’03-04.
"I think they just want to be as good as they could be," Marshall says of his Shockers. "They want to be excellent, they want to achieve, they want to win.
"And as a collective group, they all have that (aura). It’s very strong within them. And it’s an easy group to coach in that regard. By and large, they come out and really give it their all anytime the ball’s tossed."
Granted, the Valley is down. It’s not out — Indiana State was sitting at No. 67 among the unofficial Ratings Percentage Index rankings as of Wednesday morning; Missouri State was 76th — but it’s down. Swapping Loyola of present for Creighton of present will do that, at least in the short term. In 2012-13, the MVC’s aggregate league simple rating system (SRS) number on Sports-Reference.com was 6.07, ninth best out of 33 Division I leagues and the Valley’s fifth-highest mark since 1979-80. This winter, the league SRS rating has slipped to 1.64, 11th in the NCAA and the circuit’s sixth-lowest power rating since ’79-80.
For the Shockers, such a drop can be spun one of two ways. First, it makes for a slightly easier circuit to manage — again, kiss two tussles (or more) against Doug McDermott and company goodbye — which improves the odds for coming out the other side unscathed. Second, the flip side, is the perception dip, that dominating a "lesser" league doesn’t have the same oomph with the suits in Indy as other champs in the pool, that it might cost the Shox a seed line.
Although this should be noted, too: The Atlantic 10 in ’03-04 was, according to the SRS, the 10th-best league in college hoops that winter. And that sure as heck didn’t stop the Hawks from getting the benefit of the doubt, at least in terms of a No. 1 seed. Plus, as of Jan. 15, 2004, the Hawks had beaten four foes ranked among the RPI top 60; through Wednesday, the Shockers had beaten three, and all have come on either the road (Saint Louis) or on neutral (BYU, Tennessee) floors.
"No. 1, it might sound cliche, but really enjoy it," Carroll says. "It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No one’s done it in 10 years, and they have an opportunity to do this and (should) really enjoy it. I think that, looking back, it is a lot of pressure."
A lot of fun, too.
"And I think we really appreciate, too, the situation Wichita State is in — they’re not in a BCS conference, I don’t know if you would call (them) a ‘mid-major’ or not," Carroll says. "Schools (at) that level, to have success on a national scale, I think it’s good for college basketball and good for everyone involved."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.