With Saturday’s blowout win over Missouri State, the Wichita State Shockers became the first team in a decade to finish the regular season without a loss. Now that they’ve officially locked up that spot in the record books, it’s time to consider how the Shockers’ achievement stacks up against other historical unbeatens, not to mention the best teams of 2013-14.
In nonconference action, Wichita State faced only one Top 25-caliber team, the St. Louis Billikens (who weren’t ranked at the time but have since climbed to No. 10 in the AP poll). Beating SLU on the road would have been a statement win for any team, but it’s one of very few such victories that WSU has logged.
The rest of the Shockers’ schedule featured only two other schools that might even have a shot at an at-large berth, bubble teams Tennessee and BYU. None of WSU’s 18 league wins looks all that meaningful in the bigger picture, especially since second-place Indiana State lost four other games in a subpar Missouri Valley Conference.
However, the relative weakness of Wichita State’s schedule is par for the course for a contemporary unbeaten team. After all, no power-conference squad has made it through the regular season unscathed since Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers won it all in 1976.
When Jameer Nelson led St. Joseph’s to an undefeated regular season in 2003-04, the Hawks' run was almost identical to that of this year’s Shockers. St. Joe’s logged one highly impressive win (over freshman Adam Morrison and Gonzaga on a neutral court), beat a couple of mediocre power-conference teams, then ran the table in a fairly soft A-10.
Even the fabled 1990-91 UNLV squad, routinely listed among the best teams of all time, followed a similar pattern. The Rebels’ big win was a bit bigger (over fellow No. 1 seed Arkansas on the road), their conference a bit stronger (thanks to 23-6 New Mexico State, when both were in the Big West), but what they accomplished wasn’t qualitatively different from the wave WSU is riding.
Indeed, the biggest difference between Wichita State and its two regular-season-undefeated predecessors is really the unspectacular way the Shockers have gone about their business. They aren’t running up triple-digit scores as UNLV did, and they don’t have a transcendent Wooden Award favorite a la Nelson (sorry, Cleanthony Early), so it’s harder for them to earn respect from fans.
The best way for the Shockers to win their critics over, of course, would be to stay unbeaten right on through the national title game. Given what they’ve accomplished already, is such a run all that far-fetched? After all, every other team in the country has at least two losses, with Duke and Kansas still being considered candidates for No. 1 seeds with six defeats on their records.
More to the point, though, all of the other top-tier squads have suffered a bona fide upset. If Syracuse’s only losses had been on the road against Duke and Virginia, they’d have a strong case for being better than WSU. But, when the Orange failed to get the job done against lowly Boston College, they forfeited part of their right to sneer at Wichita State’s easy schedule.
Wichita State has won all the games it was supposed to win, and that’s an even more significant feat in a season with so much parity. By comparison, when St. Joe’s made its magical run in 2003-04, Stanford finished the regular season with one loss (to tourney-bound Washington) and Gonzaga with only two: against St. Joseph’s and Stanford.
The Shockers’ ability to take care of business against overmatched opponents will serve them well in the postseason. With the experience they got in last year’s Final Four run, plus the confidence they’ve earned this year, they’ll be a formidable foe even for the Syracuses and Floridas of the world.
That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a staggering upset for the Shockers to win it all. It’s just to say that this team has been defying expectations for the better part of two years, up to and including winning 31 consecutive games without two of last year’s key starters.
The Shockers are already poised to enter the tournament as the most surprising unbeaten team since Larry Bird took unranked Indiana State to the 1979 title game. They could do Bird’s squad one better by becoming the most unexpected national champion in history.