ST. LOUIS (AP) — The last school to go unbeaten in the regular season, St. Joseph’s in 2004, lost its first game in the Atlantic 10 tournament by 20 points to Xavier.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall plans on throwing that factoid at his players before the Missouri Valley Tournament. The reminder: No one’s invincible.
It’s also not the end of the world if the Shockers lose. After dropping that tournament opener following a nine-day layoff, top-seeded St. Joseph’s advanced to the East Regional final in 2004 before losing to Oklahoma State by two measly points.
“They know they have to play well, and I probably will mention it,” Marshall said. “I’m very upfront with them. Yeah, I’ll let them know that.”
Indiana State (21-9, 12-6), Northern Iowa (16-14, 10-8) and Missouri State (19-11, 9-9) are the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in a field with one marquee entrant playing for a potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seed and the rest needing to win out to earn the Valley’s automatic bid.
The second-ranked Shockers were 18-0 in conference play, beating every team twice. They’re the No. 1 seed for the second time in three years and will play the winner of the Drake-Evansville game on Friday.
Northern Iowa has won three in a row and sixth seed Southern Illinois has won three of four. They’re not worried about what happened a decade ago, just looking to get that hot hand in a tournament that’s often wide open. In 23 years in St. Louis, just seven top seeds have won the tourney.
Indiana State has its best seed since the 2000 team was No. 1, but the Sycamores have lost three in a row. Missouri State has won two of three but lost in the regular-season finale by 23 at Wichita State.
“Indiana State, they’re good enough to win the whole thing,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
Even the four play-in schools, with nary a winning record among them and with history against them, don’t believe it’s a lost cause. Since the tournament expanded to all 10 teams in 1997, play-in winners are 1-32 in the quarterfinals.
“You’ve got to stay focused on your task,” Illinois State’s Porter Moser said. “The other thing is you’ve got to believe. I know it’s an enormous task to win four in a row, but you’ve got to take them one at a time.”
Earlier this week, Wichita State cleaned up off the court with sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet beating teammates Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker for conference player of the year. It’s the first time a school swept the top three spots.
VanVleet got Bradley coach Geno Ford’s vote.
“You can’t go to sleep on him because he makes clutch 3-point shots late in the shot shock,” Ford said. “I just think with all the weapons they have, he ends up being the guy that gets you in the end.”
Marshall believes the Shockers have already done enough for a No. 1 see, but noted “my opinion doesn’t count for much.”
“Regardless, I really don’t think it matters,” Marshall added. “It’s who’s playing the best in those pivotal games in late March and April.”
Wichita State made the Final Four as a No. 9 seed last spring, getting an at-large bid after losing in the conference championship to Creighton as the No. 2 seed. The Shockers last won the conference tournament in 1987 and lost in the semifinals both times it’s been the No. 1 seed previously, in 2006 and 2012.
This may be the year, considering all but six of their victories are by double digits. The closest call was a three-point overtime win at Missouri State on Jan. 11, and in December they had a pair of five-point wins at Saint Louis and Alabama.
So far, Marshall has been able to keep everyone happy. All are sharing in the success.
“That’s what we’ve got, talented guys who are team-first,” Marshall said. “Our guys are unbelievable.”