Wichita State’s unbeaten regular season should be celebrated, not scorned

Not long after a college basketball team from a small conference completed an unbeaten regular season, a prominent analyst said that squad did not "fit in" among the nation's other elite teams and that their record was a product of "inferior competition."

Those comments were made by former CBS analyst Billy Packer about St. Joseph's before the 2004 NCAA tournament. They could just as easily come from one of the skeptics who have questioned the validity of Wichita State's perfect regular season this year.

Even as the Shockers pummeled Missouri State 68-45 on Saturday to ensure that they'll enter the Missouri Valley tournament with a spotless 31-0 record, analysts lined up to question whether Wichita State is truly a national title contender.

CBS Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb declared that "many" teams would go undefeated with Wichita State's schedule. ESPN's Miles Simon and CBS' Jon Rothstein said the Shockers haven't done enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament even if they're 34-0 by then. And at halftime of Saturday's game, former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said on ESPN that he could see picking against Wichita State as soon as the round of 32.

"When I see that matchup, that might be an upset I'll pick," Pearl said. "There's no way they've had the level of preparation of some of these other conferences."

What the reaction to Wichita State's bid for perfection has shown is that there is one opponent the polarizing Shockers have yet to overcome: The derison of some toward the achievements of non-brand-name programs.

Yes, Wichita State's only victories over likely NCAA tournament teams came against St. Louis, BYU and Tennessee. Yes, the Shockers play in a conference rated the 11th-strongest in the nation. But if it were so easy to complete the regular season unbeaten, how come only four Divison I teams have done it since 1976 when Indiana became the last team to win the national title with a perfect record?

Larry Bird led Indiana State to the national title game in 1979. Alcorn State also went unbeaten that same season but was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. Powerful UNLV reached the Final Four before falling to Duke in 1991. And the St. Joseph's team Packer thought was so undeserving of a No. 1 seed beat Packer's alma mater Wake Forest in the second round before losing a memorable back-and-forth Elite Eight game to Oklahoma State.

It's entirely possible Wichita State falls early in the NCAA tournament since many No. 1 seeds have before, but it's a shame so many are diminishing what the Shockers have already accomplished. This is a team that reached the Final Four last season, returned five of its top eight players and is by all accounts stronger than the squad that beat Ohio State in the Elite Eight last March and led Louisville by 12 in the national semifinals.

The two areas that were supposed to be weaknesses for Wichita State this season were point guard and center as a result of the graduation of Malcolm Armstead and Carl Hall.

Sophomore Fred VanVleet has done such a sensational job replacing Armstead that he's a finalist for the Naismith Award. And though the Shockers don't have a center who is the rim protector, rebounder and low-post threat that Hall was a year ago, they have gotten by with a center-by-committee plan thanks to the combination of Chadrack Lufile's defensive prowess and Darius Carter's ability to score with his back to the basket.

The rest of the Wichita State lineup is clearly better than a year ago.

Ron Baker is more confident and assertive now that he's healthy and has the memory of last year's NCAA tournament to boost his ego. Tekele Cotton has blossomed into a capable scorer after serving primarily as a defensive stopper last year. And Cleanthony Early has become more comfortable in the role of leader and go-to scoring threat as the season has gone along.

Wichita State isn't particularly deep and it lacks a true backup point guard, but the Shockers have overcome those issues with ease. They've won 15 of their 18 Valley games by more than 10 points despite seeing sellout crowds in every road game they played.

There have been some great teams to emerge from lesser conferences the past few years.

Butler made back-to-back Final Fours from the Horizon League in 2010 and 2011. Gonzaga has won 13 of the past 14 WCC titles. John Calipari's best Memphis teams emerged from the mediocre Conference USA to make two Elite Eights and reach the national title game.

None of those teams made a bid for perfection the way Wichita State has. None of those teams walked off the floor in the final minute of their last game of the regular season with "undefeated" chants ringing in their ears.

What Wichita State has accomplished is pretty remarkable. It doesn't mean the Shockers are the best team in the nation or they're going to win a national championship, but it does make them worthy of respect.

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