With a 68-45 drubbing of the Missouri State Bears last Saturday, the Wichita State Shockers capped off an undefeated regular season, the first since the Jameer Nelson-led St. Joe’s Hawks went 27-0 in 2004. The Shockers have lived up to their name, rising to #2 in the AP poll and sending waves throughout the country. This team is carefully constructed, with Gregg Marshall as its puzzle master, and it just might have the formula to be able to take the Missouri Valley Conference to the top of the mountain for one shining moment.
For sports fans, the idea of perfection is infinitely enticing and obliquely majestic. Think of great undefeated teams in history: the remaining ’72 Miami Dolphins always gather for champagne when the last undefeated NFL team goes down every season, with the greatest sigh of relief coming thanks to one David Tyree, who has not caught a pass in a professional football game since, well, you know.
Consider the 2003-’04 Arsenal F.C. team, led by an in-his-prime Thierry Henry, a waning Dennis Bergkamp and a whole host of people you would’ve loved to have had on your FIFA once upon a time. This squad is one of two clubs colloquially referred to as “The Invincibles,” sharing the moniker with the Preston North End club that went undefeated in the inaugural Football League season in 1888. Going undefeated in an entire season is difficult enough as it is; doing so in the English Premier League is an insane proposition, and the fact that it was accomplished only a decade ago does not allow it to be cherished in the way that it should, at least by people other than Arsenal fans.
American professional sports fans don’t see undefeated teams for the same reasons that EPL fans don’t: the seasons are too long, the levels of intensity too high, the variables too numerous. One injury could set a team back, and one mistake could lead to the crucial points that down a potential perfect squad. In the NBA, MLB and the NHL, the prospect of an undefeated season is reserved for video games and ignorant blow-hards, both of which assume a certain degree of simulated reality.
So what makes these Wichita State Shockers prime candidates to be the first team to run the table in college basketball since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers? Their pedigree is stable: for years, dating back to his time as the tsar of everyone’s favorite first-round upset pick, the Winthrop Eagles in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Gregg Marshall has made whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts squads legitimate contenders, outpacing rival schools in recruiting and tactically. Now, he has the kind of team which can match up with any in the country, and it sits in a conference which is entirely winnable from a tournament standpoint. The only major competition, Creighton, eked out a three-point victory over the Shockers last year, earning a #7 seed to Wichita State’s #9 and falling to Duke in the second round. Meanwhile, Wichita State memorably knocked off solid Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State teams on its way to the Final Four.
This group of Shockers is a well-oiled, well-balanced machine from top to bottom, with an encouraging mix of upperclassmen experience and young energy. The team returned Cleanthony Early, a senior forward who has led the team in scoring and rebounding. In fact, four players averaged double-digit scoring for Wichita State this season, including Early, sophomores Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet (who led the team in assists) and junior Tekele Cotton.
Wichita State can rebound on both ends of the floor and allow only 59.9 points per game, good for 13th in the nation. The Shockers have an average point differential of +15.5 per game, and they will rely heavily on their defensive prowess to lock down opponents, force bad shots and disrupt ball movement, cornerstones of any great basketball defense and all things they are capable of doing.
That the team’s closest call came against the Missouri State Bears, an entirely unheralded team that went 19-11 this season, is wholly immaterial at this point, and though opponents will likely look to that game film for answers on unlocking Marshall’s code, they’re not likely to find any: Missouri State lost to the defending champion Louisville Cardinals by a count of 90-60, and though the transitive property is exceedingly popular among competitive fan bases, we can all be reasonably certain that Wichita State would fare slightly better against Louisville, as it did in its 72-68 defeat in the Georgia Dome during last year’s Final Four.
This team is so well-rounded and gels so well that the illusion of perfection may become a reality. Gregg Marshall is the magician, his players are the smoke and mirrors and we are the audience, witnessing split bodies and rabbits coming out of hats in the form of wonderful pick and rolls and domineering rebounding. Because Wichita State can control the tempo on both ends of the floor, it will take a near-perfect performance, admittedly, from another team to beat the Shockers.
In Wichita State, Marshall may finally have discovered the formula required of a Missouri Valley team to defeat the big wigs of the ACC and Pac-12, among others. As we watch the dance unfold, keep an eye on the nuanced steps and look beyond the best-dressed patrons at the party, the Kansases and Syracuses of the world. This little engine could, and it just may.