Bracket Busters week continues at TheSportsNotebook today as we take a closer look at Missouri Valley contenders Wichita State and Creighton Yesterday’s feature was on Conference USA, with a special emphasis on Southern Miss and Memphis, and two weeks ago we looked at the West Coast Conference’s Big Three of Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s. Now let’s delve into flyover country with the midmajor powers in Kansas and Nebraska…
Wichita State (22-4, 13-2, projected #6 seed): The Shockers have a good basketball tradition and recently made the Sweet 16 in the wild year of 2006 before they lost to George Mason. If you really want to turn back the clock, Wichita made a regional final in 1981 when they lost to LSU. This team is in the mold of those two and has a very realistic chance to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and can have a darkhorse shot at the Final Four.
There’s nothing Wichita doesn’t do well. With 7’0” Garrett Stutz anchoring the low post at 14 points/8 rebounds a game, the Shockers won’t be outmuscled down low. Joe Ragland runs the offense adroitly at the point. Ragland distributes the ball well. He scores both inside and outside the three-point line. And if he needs a rest, Demetric Williams is a capable backup. Toure’ Murry is a solid 12 ppg man at the two-guard, although head coach Gregg Marshall might want to ban Murry (his name really isn’t “Murray”, that’s not a misspelling) from shooting treys. No such ban would be needed for Ben Smith, who isn’t as prolific as Murry overall, but can hit from downtown. Power forward Carl Hall and backup guard David Kyles know their roles and contribute. You name strength, and Wichita has it.
Before we all get set to pencil in Wichita as the surprise team to be in New Orleans for the Final Four, the downside is simply this—they haven’t beaten a lot of good teams. UNLV is the best win on the non-conference schedule, and while that’s a nice scalp, the next-best win is over Tulsa, who might be a live darkhorse in the Conference USA tournament, but is not someone good enough to be in NCAA at-large consideration. Furthermore, Wichita lost to Alabama, a team on the bubble, and Temple. Again, not bad losses if you’re thinking about a midmajor team just to make the NCAA field as an at-large. But for all the quality pieces Wichita has, they are going to be mystery against non-Missouri Valley competition when March arrives. My nightmare scenario has them playing Vanderbilt or Baylor, putting three teams that can rip your heart out all together.
Creighton (22-5, 12-4, projected #6 seed): The NCAA seed projection comes from Joe Lunardi, the bracketologist at ESPN.com and I’m surprise he’s got the Bluejays this high. On the surface the resume is very similar to Wichita. But Creighton is slumping badly. Prior to a win last night over Southern Illinois, Creighton had dumped three straight, including a 21-point loss to the Shockers that temporarily settled first place in the conference on Saturday. Creighton has no impressive wins in non-league play—Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern are the best they can do.
What the Bluejays do have is the best player in the conference in dynamic forward Doug McDermott. The 6’7” sophomore is averaging 23/9 a night, and shoots a net-shredding 50 percent from three-point range. He gets solid help underneath from Gregory Echenique, at 10/8, and the backcourt is very efficient. Antoine Young and Gary Gibbs combine for 11 assists a game, meaning either one can bring the ball up and run the offense with equal effectiveness. Young is the slightly better scorer, while the 6’4” Gibbs can steal a few more rebounds off the wing. If winning in NCAA play is about getting one great player to carry you for a weekend, McDermott is a good bet to do so. When it comes to making a dark horse run all the way through a regional, I would be less optimistic about Creighton than Wichita, based on the depth question. But if McDermott’s locked in when the tournament starts, Creighton will be dangerous.
But to return to Creighton’s resume issues, I’m going to take the rare step of questioning how high Lunardi has them seeded. If the committee takes recent form into account, Creighton is going to lose points on that. They’d still be in the field, but it would reduce the cushion considerably. They have a very tough game against Long Beach State on Saturday night. Let’s say they lose that one, and end the regular season at 24-6.
Then we have to assume a loss in the conference tournament, since otherwise Creighton would be in automatically and this whole discussion irrelevant. If the loss came to Wichita in the finals, we’re talking 26-7 and the best win being an earlier game with Wichita and Northwestern, both of which came prior to the New Year. And if the presumed tournament loss came sooner than the final? Serious trouble. I think Creighton needs to either beat Long Beach State on Saturday or win the conference tournament.