Wichita State — with 34 wins and zero losses heading into the men’s NCAA basketball tournament — is six wins from becoming the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976. But apparently perfect isn’t good enough. Critics have pointed to the team’s soft schedule and argued that the next six wins will be much harder to come by than the first 34, even though the selection committee awarded the Shockers the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region.
This critique of Wichita State’s achievements is unfair. The Shockers’ real problem isn’t whom they played, it’s how much they won by. The team didn’t dominate its opponents enough to make up for the weakness of its schedule relative to those of big-conference rivals.
The evidence against Wichita State’s credentials goes like this: It played two-thirds of its games against fellow Missouri Valley Conference teams; the conference is the 11th strongest in Division I, according to Sports-Reference.com. The Shockers’ schedule was the 129th toughest in the nation, and the weakest among the top 32 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall reasonably responded, after winning No. 34: “We’re not flawless. Our record is flawless.”
Indeed, no team is flawless, but Wichita State approached that impossible standard more closely than most do. Its schedule strength was inherently limited by its conference, yet it holds up well compared to other teams with records nearly as spotless.
I looked at every Division I team since 1980 that entered its conference tournaments with either one or zero losses — 25 teams in all. I used Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS) to estimate each team’s strength at the end of the season, as well as the site’s strength of schedule (SOS) ratings to analyze each team’s schedule. I then subtracted from those figures each team’s performance in the NCAA tournament to get its pre-tournament ratings.
|1984||North Carolina||24.5||8.4||Sweet Sixteen|
|2004||St. Joseph’s||20.2||3.9||Elite Eight|
|1981||Oregon State||19.8||4.0||Round of 32|
|2004||Stanford||17.6||4.4||Round of 32|
|1981||DePaul||15.9||2.6||Round of 32|
|1982||DePaul||15.2||2.5||Round of 32|
|1996||Texas Tech||14.4||0.8||Sweet Sixteen|
|1980||DePaul||14.3||4.2||Round of 32|
|1990||La Salle||13.1||-2.2||Round of 32|
|1998||Princeton||11.3||-4.8||Round of 32|
|1980||Alcorn State||11.0||-6.3||Round of 32|
|2006||George Washington||9.6||-1.4||Round of 32|
|1986||Bradley||9.5||1.9||Round of 32|
|2012||Murray State||8.3||-3.5||Round of 32|
The Shockers’ accomplishment looks impressive even after considering schedule strength. Six of the 25 teams had weaker schedules than Wichita State’s, but just one managed to match its undefeated feat: UNLV in 1990-91. And the Runnin’ Rebels’ schedule was just barely tougher than Wichita State’s this year, by a slender margin of 1.1 points per game.
This rosy take on Wichita State doesn’t make its task any easier in the tournament. Just eight of those 25 teams reached the Final Four, and only two won the title: Kentucky in 1996 and again two years ago. Moreover, all eight Final Four teams entered the tournament with an SRS above 20; Wichita State’s is 16.7. The Shockers outscored their opponents by 15 points per game — good but not impressive enough against its schedule to look like a championship contender. Their projected Sweet Sixteen opponent, Louisville, has an SRS of 25.3 and outscored opponents on its relatively tough schedule by 21 points per game.
This isn’t to say the Shockers can’t win it all. They can. But if you’re looking for a reason to doubt them, their margin of victory is a better cause than their schedule.