It has been 27 years since Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
As surprising and frustrating as that streak is for the school, this is no time to end it.
It may sound shocking, but the Shockers should lose a game in St. Louis this weekend. I'm not suggesting deliberately tanking a game – but a loss wouldn't be the worst thing in the world at this point.
It might even be the best thing.
Dragging that "0" in the loss column into the fishbowl of the NCAA tournament would be like loading a 500-pound anvil in with the team travel gear. It's a huge and non-essential burden.
Especially when you're Wichita State.
As accustomed as the Shockers have become to national attention over the course of the last year, since the unexpected Final Four run of 2013, they are not Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas or Louisville. Being a big deal doesn't come naturally to them – which is part of the reason they've been so successful. From coach Gregg Marshall on down, this is a program more comfortable in the role of spunky striver than entitled blueblood.
So winning three games in St. Louis and reaching 34-0 is asking to be placed in an uncomfortable position. If that's the record entering the Big Dance, the spotlight will be so hot it could melt the Shockers. They will be the biggest story in college basketball, at the time when college basketball is the biggest thing on the sporting calendar. That's a lot to throw on a team from the mid-major Valley.
The Shockers may be the most mentally tough team in America – gloriously competitive and seemingly unfazed by their run so far. Marshall and his players have handled the demands on their time with grace, aplomb and appreciation. But the stakes are about to be ratcheted way up and being undefeated could heap on more pressure and attention than they can happily handle.
And although the theory is disputed by some players and coaches, I believe some lessons can only be learned by losing. A 33-1 team may be wiser than a 34-0 team. Even a great squad can use a non-fatal reminder of its mortality.
"Even though we've got a perfect record, we're far from perfect as a basketball team," Marshall said Tuesday. "That's why I'm excited to go to work each day. We'll continue to strive to get better."
Still, beating demonstrably lesser competition – which the Valley has been this season, especially since Creighton left for the Big East – can foster bad habits. Wichita State has been able to win a lot of games playing 32-36 minutes of quality basketball. In the NCAAs, there will come a time when it will need the full 40.
A loss in Arch Madness might reinforce that reality. And it would simultaneously take off the edge that comes with being the national darlings of March Madness. A one-loss Wichita State would be no less deserving of a No. 1 seed, and no less a threat to make a return trip to the Final Four and possibly win it all.
In fact, history tells us a defeat in March for a red-hot team can help when the NCAA tourney starts.
Kentucky's 2012 national champions had a 24-game streak stopped in an SEC tournament final loss to Vanderbilt. It was a stunning upset, but it may have been a helpful reminder to the Wildcats of their own mortality. They rolled through the NCAAs and cut down the nets thereafter.
The identical scenario played out for Kentucky in 1996. That team was on a 27-game winning streak when it was shocked by Mississippi State in the SEC final – a game coach Rick Pitino did tank, to a degree, by sitting talented sophomore Antoine Walker for the final 18 minutes to get his head on straight for the Big Dance. The Wildcats blew through that tournament to win the national title, and Walker was a significant part of that run.
In 2005, Illinois was 29-0 and finishing the regular season at Ohio State. The Illini were upset 65-64. Refocused, they didn't lose again until the national championship game against North Carolina.
And the year before that, in 2004, St. Joseph's ran the table in the regular season – the last team to do so until Wichita this year – before losing to Xavier in the first round of the Atlantic-10 tourney. The Hawks still were rightfully awarded a No. 1 seed and advanced to the regional final before losing their Final Four bid on a late shot by Oklahoma State.
The last team to take an undefeated record into the Final Four was UNLV in 1990-91. Despite mid-major conference membership, those Runnin' Rebels don't have much in common with these Shockers – they were the defending national champions and had three future NBA players on the roster, led by overall No. 1 pick Larry Johnson. The Runnin' Rebels, perhaps seduced into believing they were invulnerable, were beaten in the semifinals by a Duke team they routed by 30 in the national title game the previous year.
The last team to take an undefeated record into the title game was Indiana State in 1979. Although the Sycamores were from the same conference as the Shockers, they had something Wichita State does not – Larry Bird. A once-in-a-lifetime talent changes the equation considerably.
And of course, the last team to win it all undefeated was Indiana in 1976. In terms of media attention and attendant pressure, that might as well have been the Dark Ages compared to today. Neither ESPN nor the internet existed, and the office-pool mania that spawned a spike in casual interest in the tournament was in its infancy.
For reasons both historical and immediate, the antithetical mission for Wichita State this weekend should be this:
Just lose, baby.
A month from now it may be viewed as the best thing that ever happened to the Shockers.
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