WICHITA, Kansas (AP) — There aren’t a whole lot of statement games on Wichita State’s schedule this season.
Two of them are coming up in a matter of days.
The unbeaten Shockers are headed to Indiana State on Wednesday night, followed by a trip to Northern Iowa on Saturday. Those two teams are the closest contenders behind the fourth-ranked Shockers in the Missouri Valley race.
Perhaps more important, they’re arguably the two teams with the best chance of dealing Wichita State (23-0, 10-0) a defeat before the start of the conference tournament March 6.
“It’s the week that everyone’s been talking about and pointing at, arguably two of the best teams in our league, back to back, on the road,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “I know they’ll be great atmospheres coming up and we’ll have to play really good basketball.”
They might want to avoid spotting their opponents a big early lead, too.
Wichita State allowed Evansville to race out to a 15-point first-half advantage on Saturday before rallying for an 81-67 victory. When then-No. 1 Arizona lost to California later that night, it left only the Shockers and new No. 1 Syracuse as the nation’s undefeated teams.
To put that into perspective, the only other team from the Missouri Valley to win its first 23 games was Larry Bird’s Indiana State team, which went 33-0 before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA championship game.
The last team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated was UNLV in 1991.
“Nobody in this program feels like we’re at our best our reached our peak,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “Besides, we don’t worry about what the outside world is talking about. We know every game in the Valley is a challenge.”
Poll voters have been largely unimpressed by the Shockers’ relatively weak schedule, which is why they remained No. 4 this week — behind the Wildcats, who dropped to second, and Florida, which has already lost twice this season.
Wichita State has only one victory against a current Top 25 team, beating No. 13 Saint Louis before the Billikens were ranked. Otherwise, the Shockers have been pounding away on a schedule that offers very few chances to pick up marquee victories.
It’s not entirely the Shockers’ fault, of course. Marshall has found it increasingly tough to schedule games against high-profile opponents after their run to last year’s Final Four — many of those teams don’t want to risk losing to a so-called “mid-major” program.
Then there’s the fact that the Missouri Valley has weakened considerably this season.
Creighton proved to be the Shockers’ toughest rival, but they moved to the Big East and left few contenders for conference superiority. The Sycamores (17-5, 8-2) may be the closest thing, but even they were routed by Wichita State 68-48 when they met Jan. 18.
The Shockers beat the Panthers 67-53 in their first meeting this season.
“It’s something a lot of people have talked about, and I think we’re excited about it,” forward Ron Baker said of the two-game trip. “We’ll be prepared just like we always are. No games are a given on the road. It’s going to be hostile and we’re looking forward to it.”
Even with a weak schedule, Wichita state is still firmly in the top 10 of the RPI, a key factor when the NCAA selection committee begins to seed teams. But their schedule also means that any slip along the way would likely dash the Shockers’ chances of earning a No. 1 seed.
It would help if they continued to dominate their opponents.
The Shockers are the only team in the nation to lead their conference in scoring offense and defense. They also lead the league in scoring margin, offensive and defensive rebounding, turnover margin, rebounding margin, blocked shots and, well, just about every other statistic.
“We’re trying to win a conference championship and get into the NCAA tournament with the best seed we can get, and just remain relevant nationally,” Marshall said. “We’re pleased to go to 23-0 and looking forward to this week. I know it’ll be a big challenge.”