Wichita State’s encore performance from its Final Four splash a year ago is at 26-0 and accelerating after it fended off Southern Illinois, 78-67, on Tuesday night at Koch Arena.
The Shockers are ranked second in the coaches’ poll and fourth by The Associated Press. Just as surely as they meet the eye test, they stand up to cold analysis at fourth in the most recent NCAA RPI.
And now they’re five games away from being the first major-college team in a decade to enter the postseason unscathed.
Yet for all that, Wichita State is in a curious perception vacuum right now even amid a world of instant and constant analysis.
How good are the Shockers, really, many seem to wonder ... even with a core of players back from last year that should confer automatic credibility and makes this year’s version capable of making a deep NCAA dent.
Instead, if they had lost to Southern Illinois, and they could have, the Shockers surely would have been dramatically downgraded in the polls.
They’re underappreciated for reasons they can’t control but that have little to do with their caliber of play.
In part, it’s because it’s otherwise been a tepid year among its Missouri Valley brethren.
In part, it’s because Wichita State isn’t a brand name in the game and it’s largely made up of players who were overshadowed as prospects ... as symbolized by Nick Wiggins being a Shocker senior reserve whose younger brother Andrew is expected to be a top NBA draft pick after one season at Kansas.
Whatever the reasons, it shows up like this: If the Shockers are less than flawless in any given game, well, then, how good can they really be?
It’s easy to fall into that, all the more so because they’re undefeated and thus more subject to scrutiny.
Watching them grinding before pulling away late against the Salukis, who had won four in a row but were 6-15 before that, provided plenty of room for skepticism about their trajectory.
But those relentless evaluations, none of which mean a thing until season’s end, miss the point.
There were plenty of other reasons that could go into a sluggish game like this at a time like this for the Shockers.
Maybe they were tight? Could they be getting bored? Might they have been due for a letdown, especially after winning back-to-back road games last week, including at their top Valley competitor, Indiana State? Doesn’t SIU get some credit for its improvement?
Most likely, it was some form of all of that at once.
In one sense, the result left coach Gregg Marshall somewhere between grim and glum as he assessed the game afterward:
“Just survived,” he said. “A C-minus,” he called it.
But that doesn’t mean Marshall suddenly is fretting over his team. He understands the larger scheme, and he believes his team is mature.
In particular, he believe it’s embracing being one of only two remaining undefeated teams instead of feeling any heaviness or distraction from it.
His players, he said, have subscribed in a general sense to what actress and Wichita native Kirstie Alley told them before the game Tuesday.
“‘Don’t read your reviews, the positive ones and the negative ones; go out and play your game,’” he quoted her saying. “So you’re getting it from a Hollywood star who knows sometimes you can read too much of what you guys write.
With a smile, he added, “Not that you’re not great writers.”
Much as he’d like it to continue, Marshall knows this isn’t about an undefeated regular season. Ultimately, that would be a fine distinction.
But this is all about girding for the NCAA Tournament, which the Shockers entered last season without even being ranked only to burst through to the Final Four for the first time since 1965.
It’s about getting better as they go and not stagnating or thinking that an unblemished record means they’re playing untarnished basketball.
“Hopefully, we’ll play better than this against Evansville, or it will be over Sunday,” Marshall said.
Most of all, he knows this:
In the rhythm of a 35-game season, maybe 25 games a team plays are “basically you.” Five or so might go a little better, he said, five or so not as good.
And so to date, he added, “You’re not going to play the perfect game 26 times.”
That doesn’t mean the Shockers don’t have a high ceiling or that there’s anything wrong.
But as far as others see them, they’re in limbo now until the NCAA Tournament, which whether or not they have a pristine regular season is what their ultimate signature will be.