Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
While the majority of teams vying for bids to The Big Dance will face off in conference tournaments through this weekend, the Wichita State Shockers defeated Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship on Sunday to cap an undefeated regular season. It’s the first time a Division I college basketball team has entered the NCAA Tournament with a clean slate in the loss column since Bob Knight guided the Indiana Hoosiers to a perfect season and an NCAA Championship in 1976 at the ripe age of 35.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins … the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers … the 2007 New England Patriots … the 2014 Wichita State Shockers?
Don’t be. It’s now been 340 days since the Shockers last lost a game – an early April tout with Louisville in the Final Four. They’ve climbed to the No. 2 ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll and will likely be named a No. 1 seed in the tournament come Selection Sunday.
But since coach Gregg Marshall and his team played only four teams ranked in the top 75, it’s easy to put the Shockers on upset alert once March Madness picks up.
Conference realignment effective at season’s start shifted the traditional powers around the country. The Big East and its tradition of postseason excellence suffered major losses to the ACC, who lured Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame to an already top-heavy pool of college basketball havens. Most experts will agree the changes have created a particularly exciting landscape across the nation in the 2013-2014 campaign, a season in which Arizona and Syracuse both held the No. 1 ranking for weeks at a time.
The sport received a jolt of energy at season’s start when Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State (all schools with storied pedigree on the hardwood) faced off in the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago in early November. It was significant in that four of the top five teams in the nation actually played each other in a meaningful game before March.
While some of the best teams and talent have battled over the past four months through rigorous conference schedules, Wichita State slowly climbed the charts from preseason No. 16 to the current No. 2 team in the country. The Shockers’ best win all year, other than their most recent victory in the MVC conference final, came on Dec. 1 when they beat St. Louis, the Atlantic 10’s outright regular season champion.
But the fact remains that the Shockers won every single time they stepped on the court this year. Thirty-four in a row. They haven’t had to gameplan for Duke’s freshman forward Jabari Parker as of yet, but that’s no reason to discount them as a legitimate threat when the field of 66 is picked.
Based on factors and circumstances out of the team’s control, the Shockers didn’t have to endure the rigors of the ACC, the Big 12 or even the Big East on a nightly basis like the Blue Devils, Jayhawks or the Villanova Wildcats have. But with the Big Dance right around the corner, they need only win six more games to cement one of the best seasons ever into the history books.
With only 40 minutes to dispose of the latest mid-major to make noise atop the college ranks, the programs who’ve competed at the highest level all season should be on high alert, or they’ll run the risk of being shocked on the road to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.