Every NCAA tournament has a Talking Point Team. Last year’s was Syracuse, which didn’t deserve to be there – its RPI was 71, the highest ever for an at-large invitee — but made the Final Four. This year’s TPTer might again be Syracuse, which had six victories teams among the RPI’s top 50 but went uninvited, which irked Jim Boeheim and delighted the denizens of Greensboro, N.C. But by now we’re all weary of Whiny Jim, and there’s a more intriguing team in the grid.
That team is Wichita State, a colossus among mid-majors. The Shockers crashed the 2013 Final Four and nearly felled champ-to-be Louisville in the semis. They entered the 2014 tournament unbeaten. The Shockers beat Kansas in Round 2 in 2015. They clipped Arizona in Round 1 last year. In sum, this is not a program without profile. Which is why the Shockers’ seeding was so shocking.
Wichita State, which is 30-4 and champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, is a No. 10 seed. That’s lower than Vanderbilt, a No. 9 carrying a record-for-an-at-large 15 losses. That’s lower than South Carolina, a No. 7 that has lost six of its past nine. That’s lower than Michigan State, a No. 9 with a road record of 2-7.
For once, we can’t blame RPI. Wichita State’s RPI is 32, which trumps Vandy’s (38), South Carolina’s (43) and Michigan State’s (50). Yet the NCAA basketball committee deemed the Shockers the 38th-best team in the field. The knock on Wichita State: It was 2-4 against teams in the RPI top 50, with both victories coming against Illinois State, which didn’t make the field. The only team in this NCAA tournament the Shockers have beaten is South Dakota State.
No, Wichita State didn’t play a great schedule. It beat Oklahoma, which fell from last year’s Final Four to 11-20. It beat LSU, which lost 21 games and finally fired Johnny Jones. It lost to Louisville and Michigan State in the Bahamas. It lost at home to Oklahoma State. It lost to the aforementioned Illinois State, which went 27-6 and has an RPI of 33 but was omitted. (Which poses an even more tantalizing question: Had the Shockers flubbed the Valley final, would they have made the Big Dance at all?)
Here’s where Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings have Wichita State – seventh, which is three spots ahead of No. 1 seed Kansas and five ahead of No. 2 seed Duke. Here’s where Dr. Joel Sokol’s LRMC ratings have the Shockers – sixth, which is one spot behind No. 1 seed North Carolina and six ahead of No. 2 Louisville. We know the committee consults to these more advanced analytics. Why did it apparently disregard them?
If it’s righteous indignation you seek, Sokol isn’t your man. Said the Georgia Tech professor: “I’m not sure I can see their point of view as far as putting them as low as a No. 10 seed. I can see their point as far as the games they’ve played. They lost to Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma State — the three best teams they played by far. For the committee, that’s not an unreasonable point of view.”
So what explains LRMC’s lofty view of the Shockers? Sokol: “When they’ve played the everybody-elses, they haven’t just beaten them — they’ve beaten them by a lot. But I don’t know that I’d have had them as a No. 2 seed. I might have said somewhere around a No. 7 or a No. 8.”
Gonzaga is both No. 1 in Sokol’s rankings and a No. 1 seed. “Saint Mary’s is really the only difference in schedule quality between the two teams,” Sokol said. “Gonzaga beat Florida, Iowa State and Arizona. The difference was that Wichita State lost all three (big non-conference) games.”
Sokol sniffs no vast conspiracy to keep down the mid-majors: If such a thing exists, how is Gonzaga No. 1 in the West? How is Butler No. 4 in the South? As much as he likes his numbers, Sokol is a realist. Sometimes those numbers can flatter a team. He’s leery of West Virginia, the nation’s third-best team according to LRMC. “They were beating people badly for a while. They haven’t been doing that lately. Our rankings don’t take that into account.”
The upshot of Wichita State being seeded No. 10 means that the Shockers – provided they handle No. 7 Dayton in Round 1 – could face a Round 2 date with second-seeded Kentucky. “If you go by our ratings, they’ll lose to (No. 4 per LRMC) Kentucky,” Sokol said, “and we’ll wonder what the fuss was about.”
Yep. That’s how this works. Until the games begin, we fuss about seedings. Once the playing starts, we shut up and watch.