The most striking aspect of the final minutes of Monday's thrilling Maui Invitational quarterfinal between UConn and Wichita State was how different the stakes were for both programs.
A Huskies loss spoiled their trip to Maui. A Shockers loss had season-long ramifications.
As a result of Wichita State's narrow 83-79 loss to UConn, the Shockers will play two games in the consolation bracket against Division II Chaminade and either rebuilding Oklahoma or downtrodden Virginia. That's potentially devastating for the at-large hopes of a Wichita State team that badly needed the marquee win over UConn and the boost in schedule strength from playing top-five Michigan State and either Washington or Kentucky the next two days.
It might sound crazy to be talking at-large bids before Thanksgiving, but consider Wichita State's remaining non-league schedule.
Aside from a road game at San Diego State on Dec. 4 and a Bracketbusters game on Feb. 18, Wichita State's non-league slate doesn't feature any other opponents likely to even contend for an NCAA tournament berth. The Shockers could overcome that lack of schedule strength with a 30-win season a la Northern Iowa last season, but their margin of error for an at-large bid has now shrunk considerably.
The setback for Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State is symbolic of a discouraging opening two weeks of the season for the entire conference. Less than five years removed from putting four teams in the NCAA tournament and two in the Sweet 16, the Missouri Valley is already inching closer to being a one-bid league for the second season in a row.
Northern Iowa has lost two of three including a setback against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Missouri State has dropped a pair of games including a 12-point head scratcher against Tulsa. And Creighton fell by three on Sunday to an Iowa State team expected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12.
It's probably far too early to condemn the Missouri Valley to one-bid status, but it's not too soon for Wichita State to lament several huge opportunities squandered against Connecticut.
There was the inability to take a a halftime lead with Kemba Walker saddled with foul trouble. There was the refusal to double-team Walker in the second half as he lit up the scoreboard for 29 points. And there was the dubious illegal screen that went against Wichita State in the final minute with UConn clinging to a one-point lead.
Maybe none of that will come back to haunt Wichita State this March. If the Shockers lose in their conference tournament, however, the guess here is it might.