The Wichita State Shockers secured a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title for a fourth straight season and won this year’s MVC tournament title game. They ended the year on a 15-game winning streak, and scoring 80 or more points against 10 of those opponents. After adjusting their offense for strength of schedule and pace of play, they score more points than 339 of the nation’s 351 teams. Its defense is better than 332 teams, making it one of only four programs in the country in the top 20 for both offensive and defensive efficiency this year, per the 2017 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings. The other three are No. 1 seeds Villanova and Gonzaga and No. 2 Kentucky.
So why did the Shockers get a 10 seed in this year’s tournament? The NCAA’s calculated RPI had coach Gregg Marshall ‘s squad ranked No. 32, which probably led to Wichita State becoming one of the most under-seeded teams in the past 16 years.
Since 2002, the first year KenPom data is available, 88 teams have been ranked in the top 20 for both offensive and defensive efficiency. Eighty (!) of them were one of the tournament’s top-four seeds, with none ever seeded below the eight line.
However, being ranked this highly in Pomeroy’s rankings is no surefire marker of success. Nearly a quarter (21) of those teams lost in one of the first two rounds, including five of the eight that were seeded below the No. 4 line:
- No. 5 Florida lost in the round of 64 in 2002
- No. 6 Wisconsin lost in the round of 32 in 2004
- No. 8 Memphis lost in the round of 64 in 2012
- No. 8 Pittsburgh lost in the round of 64 in 2013
- No. 5 Purdue lost in the round of 64 in 2013
What’s unique to Wichita State: When the Shockers have been a lower seed, they have done better relative to expectations. Wichita State was in the top 20 for both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2014, rewarded with a No. 1 seed but lost to No. 8 Kentucky in the Round of 32, busting a number of brackets. Its best tournament performance under Marshall was 2013, when the Shockers made the Final Four as a No. 9 seed in the West region, knocking off No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State along the way. Now they have the best of both worlds — they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But they’ll need all their prowess if they are to join Syracuse (2016) as the only other No. 10 seed in tournament history to make it to the Final Four.
In the first round, Wichita State faces No. 7 Dayton, a veteran team featuring one of the best back courts in the county with senior guards Scoochie Smith and Charles Cooke. But the Flyers can be beat on the boards, and based on the average heights of their centers and power forwards play 0.6 inches shorter than you would expect per Ken Pomeroy’s effective height metric, whereas Wichita State is tall (plus-0.7 effective height) and more tenacious grabbing rebounds. According to Jeff Sagarin’s Predictor metric, one of the best indicators of future wins this season, Wichita State should win by seven or eight points.
The real test for Wichita State comes in the round of 32, where it likely will meet up with No. 2 Kentucky.
The Wildcats head into the tournament with the fourth-highest adjusted net point differential (plus-27.2 per 100 possessions) and a backcourt that can catch fire at any time.
Freshman guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox led the team in scoring (20.4 and 16.1 points per game, respectively) and are at their best when driving to the rim and drawing fouls.
Wichita State is adequate at keeping out of foul trouble — free throws account for 35.3 percent of an opponent’s shot attempts, 180th out of 351 teams — but well below average at defending cuts to the basket, allowing 1.25 points per possession on 66.7 percent shooting, putting them in the bottom 10 percent of the country. And, according to Sagarin, Kentucky should be a two-point favorite over Wichita State, implying just a 44.6 percent win probability for the Shockers.
That doesn’t mean Wichita State is a bad value play. Projections at FiveThirtyEight give the Shockers a 24 percent chance of reaching the Sweet 16 this year yet the public remains skeptical, with only 13.1 percent of participants in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge having the Shockers moving that far in their brackets.
But still, they’ll have to earn their spot in the Sweet 16. So while Wichita State may be one of the worst seeding jobs by the selection committee, they’re still no sure thing to be this year’s Cinderella.