For most of the year, Murray State has dominated the attention when it comes to teams outside the power conferences, as it remained undefeated until last week. While that was a great story for a program like Murray State, it also has masked what has been a very good year for “Mid-Major” teams, where several others have a claim at the top spot.
If we exclude the “BCS” conferences plus the Mountain West and Atlantic-10 (the two other conferences that have had multiple bids each of the last four years), teams from the remaining conferences comprise 15 of the top 60 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings–and none of them incidentally is named Murray State. For comparison, the previous five seasons have ended with 9, 12, 9, 7 & 7 teams from the other conferences ranked in Pomeroy’s Top 60. The season is not over so those rankings can change, but it suggests that the depth of quality in the mid-majors has been very good in 2011-2012. St. Mary’s and Gonzaga are among the best 30 teams in the country, BYU has an at-large case, Southern Miss and Memphis should be in the tournament, Harvard has put together a great season, Long Beach State played well against good competition, Creighton was ranked until their recent slide, Iona is going to be a dangerous out, and Middle Tennessee may garner at-large consideration even if they don’t win a conference title.
Then there is Wichita State. On Saturday, Wichita State went to Creighton and decimated the Blue Jays, making their claim to shoot to the head of the Mid-Major line. The Shockers put on an offensive display (49 points in the first half in an 89-68 win). They also frustrated Creighton star Doug McDermott on the defensive end. That dominant performance pushed Wichita State to #9 in Ken Pomeroy rankings, and they are up to #17 in the latest RPI rankings, which would put them solidly in 4/5 seed contention right now.
Wichita State won the NIT last season, beating yearly NIT participant Virginia Tech along the way, and defeating everyone’s top tourney snub, Alabama, in the Final. They returned a senior-laden group (all five starters are seniors), have a deep bench, and have 7-footer Garrett Stutz along the front line to give them size against the big boys. Guard Joe Ragland gives them excellent perimeter play, and is among the nation’s leaders in effective field goal percentage (62.5% from 2-pt shots, 47.3% from 3-pt range). Under Gregg Marshall, who will be a hot candidate for jobs this offseason, they do what his teams usually do: prevent offensive rebounds from the opponent, get their own misses, and avoid turnovers.
That current #9 ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings is in select company. Excluding the ACC, Big East, Big XII, Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC, Mountain West and Atlantic-10 teams, the only other teams to rate in the top 15 over the last decade are Butler in 2010 (12th), Gonzaga twice in 2004 and 2009, and Memphis from 2006 to 2008. Pretty rare company.
Southern Illinois (#4 seed in 2007) and Drake (#5 seed in 2008) were the two highest seeded teams from the Missouri Valley over the last decade. Wichita State now 22-4, with two of the losses coming in overtime, and three of them coming to tournament-caliber teams: Alabama, Temple and Creighton. They now have a 19 point win over UNLV, who will be a pretty high seed in the tournament, and that 21 point win at Creighton. They will travel to Davidson for the Bracket Busters this weekend, and should be a pretty solid favorite in their remaining games.
If they enter the tournament at 28-5 or better, they should garner 5-seed or better. In this season with lots of successful teams from the Mid-Major ranks, and where one got to 23-0, it is Wichita State who looks like the heir apparent to Butler as we head toward March, even if the coaches who vote in the coaches poll don’t realize it yet.
[photo via US Presswire]