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Wichita State’s Strength of Schedule Isn’t the Problem

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 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.

Year Team SRS SOS Finished
2014 Wichita State 16.7 1.6 TBD
1999 Duke 35.1 9.7 Final
1991 UNLV 31.6 2.7 Final Four
1996 Kentucky 31.4 9.2 Champion
1997 Kansas 27.6 8.0 Sweet Sixteen
2012 Kentucky 24.5 6.9 Champion
1984 North Carolina 24.5 8.4 Sweet Sixteen
2005 Illinois 24.4 7.4 Final
1987 UNLV 23.1 5.3 Final Four
2008 Memphis 23.1 4.0 Final
2012 Syracuse 21.3 7.2 Elite Eight
1996 Massachusetts 20.6 8.1 Final Four
2004 St. Joseph’s 20.2 3.9 Elite Eight
1981 Oregon State 19.8 4.0 Round of 32
1988 Temple 18.2 2.1 Elite Eight
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.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.