Sixty-eight teams will have an opportunity to win a national championship once the NCAA tournament field is revealed next Sunday.
Only Wichita State will have the chance to make history.
By outlasting second-seeded Indiana State 83-69 in the Missouri Valley title game on Sunday afternoon, Wichita State becomes the first team to enter the NCAA tournament with a perfect record since UNLV in 1991. Only seven previous national champs have finished unbeaten, San Francisco in 1956, North Carolina in 1957, UCLA four times during the John Wooden dynasty and Indiana in 1976.
If the downside to being undefeated is that it could heap more pressure and attention on Wichita State than a team from a mid-major conference can handle, the upside is the chance for the Shockers to join the immortal teams on that list. In reality, the Shockers' accomplishment would be more remarkable in some ways considering none of those previous undefeated champs needed to win six NCAA tournament games, nor was there the level of parity in the sport that there is today.
Skeptics will note that Saint Louis, BYU and Tennessee are the only three teams Wichita State has beaten that are likely to join the Shockers in the NCAA tournament.
That's certainly not a schedule reminiscent of the ones power-conference teams play, but Wichita State has also mowed down its competition, defeating Valley opponents by an average of 15.6 points per game in the regular season and by 20.3 points per game during Arch Madness. Plus, it can't be that easy to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten from a small conference if nobody has done it in the past 23 years.
How conceivable is it that Wichita State could make a title run? It certainly won't be easy, but the Shockers have about as good a chance as anyone.
First, they're now a lock to receive a No. 1 seed next Sunday. Second, there are no unbeatable juggernauts to overcome this season. And third, they return a handful of key players who are tournament-tested, having been part of last year's remarkable run to the Final Four.
To make another run this season, Wichita State will have to respond to challenges just like it did against Indiana State on Sunday.
Every time the Sycamores made a second-half surge, the Shockers answered with a flurry of big shots. When Indiana State crept within four midway through the second half, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton burried back-to-back threes. When the Sycamores pulled back within five minutes later, VanVleet sparked a 13-0 blitz. And when the Sycamores trimmed the lead to single digits one final time, VanVleet again turned momentum with a pair of key layups.
VanVleet finished with 22 points, most in the second half. Cotton had 20 and Baker 14.
Before conference play began, when an undefeated regular season still seemed like an impossible dream for Wichita State, coach Gregg Marshall described the idea of entering the NCAA tournament without a loss like this.
"Right now, we're not thinking about eating the entire elephant," he said. "We're thinking about our next meal."
At 34-0, Wichita State must be getting pretty full. There's not much of that elephant left to eat.
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