There is no doubt about it: The Wichita State Shockers are a great college basketball team. Their resume proves that.
The Shockers have gone 34-0 this season and are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They made the Final Four last year, went 5-0 against fellow tournament teams this year and are the No. 2 team in the country, according to the final AP Top 25 poll of the season.
Despite all of that, however, the Shockers still feel like underdogs headed into the Big Dance.
Don't believe me? It's true. Business Insider collected picks from 21 college basketball experts. Of those, only four picked Wichita State to make it to the Final Four, and only two picked the Shockers to win the entire tournament.
For an undefeated school whose star players have Final Four experience, that's a surprising amount of doubt.
The foundation of that doubt lies in the Missouri Valley Conference, one of those looked-down-upon mid majors. That's the conference that Wichita State dominated this season, but since it isn't the ACC, the Big 12, Big Ten or another power conference, the team did not get a chance to amass a very strong strength of schedule.
Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight broke down the case against Wichita State:
The evidence against Wichita State’s credentials goes like this: It played two-thirds of its games against fellow Missouri Valley Conference teams; the conference is the 11th strongest in Division I, according to Sports-Reference.com. The Shockers’ schedule was the 129th toughest in the nation, and the weakest among the top 32 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Of course, the Wichita State players cannot be blamed for the schedule—they can only play the teams in front of them, and they defeated every team in their path this year. That doesn't happen very often.
Wichita State is the first college basketball team to go undefeated in 10 years and the only team in history to have a 34-0 record.
Going undefeated takes an immense amount of teamwork, focus, discipline and confidence—a combination that's hard to attain no matter which conference your team belongs to.
Still, the Shockers have been criticized throughout their undefeated season by journalists and fans who wanted to discredit their accomplishment. Their weak schedule, not their unblemished record, made the headlines.
All people want is for Wichita State to prove that it can beat the top teams in the nation. That's what the team did last year when it was a No. 9 seed in the tournament. Those Shockers upset No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State before falling to the No. 1 Louisville Cardinals in the Final Four.
Though it is the No. 1 seed this year and should have an easier path back to college basketball's final weekend, Wichita State has been placed in the toughest region of the tournament: the Midwest.
The Shockers share their quadrant with No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Duke and No. 4 Louisville, three of the toughest and most respected college basketball programs in the nation.
Against such basketball royalty, it's hard for some to take Wichita State seriously despite the "0" in its loss column. That's why so many refuse to pick it to make the Final Four.
However, Tommy Tomlinson of Forbes.com, one of the few picking Wichita State to go all the way, advises us to not get discouraged by the team's weaker opponents in the regular season or the difficulty of its road in the tournament. Merely looking at the Shockers' anatomy should be enough to impress:
But there’s no need to put down the opponents. Wichita State’s players can stand on their own. Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker can score from all over the floor. Tekele Cotton takes on the other team’s top scorers and can shoot the three. Fred VanVleet, the steady sophomore point guard, is a killer at the end of the shot clock and in the last five minutes (not to mention, his name reminds a few of us of Captain Beefheart). The top four scorers average in double figures. The top three shoot better than 80 percent from the line. They’re built for the tight games of a tournament. If one player has a bad night, it won’t derail them.
As the experts and fans argue amongst themselves about the Shockers' greatness—or lack thereof—the team is merely preparing hard for its next game the way it has all season long. The players and coaches know the doubters are out there, and they use it as fuel.
"Thanks for all those who have helped us along the way," associate head coach Chris Jans told reporters last week after the perfect regular season was complete. "But a special thanks to the haters because you have motivated us even more."
The players have adopted that mentality as well. Early was far from deterred when the bracket came out. According to the Associated Press, he is simply looking forward to having the chance to prove himself:
I feel like I have something to prove, and my teammates have something to prove. And when you will be facing programs that people think you can't beat, those are the types of challenges you need to prove yourself.
Wichita State will begin its quest for immortality on Friday, March 21 against either the Cal Poly Mustangs or the Texas Southern Tigers. It is trying to become the first team since 1976 to win the national championship without dropping a game all season.
Along with their difficult opponents, the Shockers will face whispers of uncertainty and the spotlight of suspicion as they march through the tournament. They might not be able to claim the "Cinderella" title this year, but for an undefeated No. 1 seed, they're a relative underdog.
However, this Wichita State team won't let that bother it. The players and coaches know that they're a great team. All that's left for them to do is win.
As they've proven throughout the year, that's something they're pretty good at.
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