Post-game hugs and high fives were still being shared at Wichita State when ESPN officials pulled the plug on Saturday’s celebration of perfection to allow analysts to debate the dumbest question of the season in college basketball.
For about the 1,000th time in the past month, inquiring minds wanted to know if No. 2 Wichita State (31-0) — the first team in 10 years to post an undefeated regular-season record in Division I basketball — really deserved a No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament ahead of higher-profile teams from larger conferences with more losses on their ledgers.
The short answer: Absolutely.
The real question: Which other three schools deserve to join Wichita State, a Final Four team last season, on the top line when the bracket is announced on Selection Sunday?
My top two choices: No. 1 Florida (27-2) and No. 3 Arizona (27-2). But the final top seed is open for discussion between a half-dozen blue-blood programs, pending their results in conference tournaments.
Some analysts believe two schools from that second tier of teams deserve inclusion on the top line because the Shockers, as members of the Missouri Valley Conference, are not worth of such an honor. Such logic is insulting to a team that returns six of its top nine scorers from last year’s Final Four squad and has cobbled together a 31-0 mark while winning 26 of those games by double-digit margins.
When the bracket is released on March 16, WSU should be a No. 1 seed even if it fails to win a game in this week’s conference tournament. History says the Shockers have earned that much.
For those with short memories, the last major-college team to post an unblemished regular-season mark — St. Joseph’s — dropped its opening game of the 2004 Atlantic-10 conference tournament to Xavier, 87-67. Despite the 20-point thumping, the Hawks still received a No. 1 seed and advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to Oklahoma State, 64-62.
A year ago, Gonzaga earned a No. 1 seed by carrying a 31-2 record into Selection Sunday. The Zags finished 32-3 after being bumped from the 2013 tournament by Wichita State.
Essentially, the same group of Shockers that reached last year’s Final Four has posted a perfect record while ranking among the national leaders in scoring defense (60.4 points per game), field-goal percentage defense (39.7 percent) and rebound margin (plus 7.8 per game). They’ve done it with seniors, with toughness (mental and physical) and without many close calls.
WSU is discernibly better than the St. John’s or Gonzaga teams that received No. 1 seeds in the past decade. It is more talented across the board than the 1978-79 Indiana State team, led by legendary player Larry Bird, that posted the MVC’s last undefeated record before falling in the NCAA title game to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
The Shockers’ body of work this season is unmatched by the blue-bloods or the Cinderellas. No other team is undefeated. No other program has reached the 31-0 mark in any season since UNLV went 34-0 before losing at the 1991 Final Four.
Yet some power-conference loyalists drone on about the need for WSU to take a step back in favor of a top seed for No. 4 Duke (23-6), No. 5 Virginia (25-5), No. 6 Villanova (26-3), No. 7 Syracuse (26-3), No. 8 Kansas (22-7) or No. 9 Wisconsin (23-5).
Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, the last person to lead a men’s basketball team to an NCAA title with an undefeated record (1976 Indiana, 32-0), does not share those concerns. Knight addressed the Shockers before Saturday’s regular-season finale, a 68-45 rout of Missouri State.
During the ESPN telecast, Knight said: “This is a team that anybody’s going to have problems with. The thing that impresses me with this team, beyond anything else, is the way that the Shockers play defensively. They play on that end of the floor maybe better than any team that I’ve seen play all year.”
I stand in 100 percent agreement with the General’s take on this subject. WSU’s list of nonconference triumphs includes victories over No. 17 Saint Louis, Brigham Young, Alabama, Davidson, DePaul, Tulsa and Tennessee. Two weeks after Wichita State defeated Tennessee, 70-61, the Volunteers routed Virginia, the eventual ACC champ, 87-52. So, yeah, I think WSU would have more than held its own in a higher-profile league.
So does Shockers’ coach Gregg Marshall. After the victory over Missouri State, Marshall said: “It’s been incredible. These guys have met every challenge. There are a lot of folks who have spoken positively and negatively about this team. But every day, they’ve come to work ... and they’ve handled this.”
The only question left is whether Wichita State can handle a No. 1 seed in the 2014 tournament. We’ll find out later this month.
For now, it’s time to shift the top-line focus for Selection Sunday to this question: Which blue-blood program deserves to join Wichita State, Florida and Arizona in rounding out the No. 1 seeds?
Now, that is a topic worth discussing the next two weeks. Wichita State already has made its case to be a No. 1 seed. And that case should be air-tight in the minds of selection committee members.
Spotlight: Markus Kennedy, SMU F
For the first time in 21 seasons, No. 18 SMU appears destined for the NCAA Tournament. A big reason the Mustangs (23-6, 12-4 in American Athletic Conference) are well-positioned for the Big Dance has been the play of forward Markus Kennedy, a transfer from Villanova.
Kennedy (6-foot-9, 245 pounds), a sophomore in his first season at SMU, leads the team in rebounds (7.0 average) blocked shots (1.41) and steals (1.48). He has been the primary rim protector for a defensive-minded team that remains in contention for the league’s regular-season title heading into a Wednesday’s showdown against No. 11 Louisville (24-5, 13-3) at Moody Coliseum (6 p.m., CBSSN).
Kennedy, who ranks second on the team in scoring (11.9 ppg), has become a more effective player in his second college stop by dropping more than 60 pounds since leaving Villanova. In his lone season with the Wildcats, Kennedy averaged 14.8 minutes, 3.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for coach Jay Wright.
“Marcus was heavy,” SMU coach Larry Brown said. “I think Jay felt he was going to be a great player for him but it didn’t work out. When you’re 300 pounds, it’s tough. He lost weight at SMU. He’s gotten better and quicker. He’s a post presence for us. That helps everybody.”
With Kennedy clogging the lane and protecting the rim, SMU ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (36.8 pct.) and 18th nationally in scoring defense (61.2 ppg). Both figures are tops among teams in the American Athletic Conference.
“You’ve really got to protect the rim to win, especially with the way games are being called now,” Brown said. “We’ve been offensively challenged a lot this year. But the value of guarding is great every night. And playing hard every night gives us a chance to win games.”
Kennedy has been a big part of that formula for SMU this season.