When the buzzer sounded, the celebration began. Players and coaches congratulated each other on another victory. Students held up replica newspapers reading “31-0.” Wichita State finished a convincing 68-45 win over Missouri State, culminating one of the most successful regular seasons of all time. The season was not without challenges. They trailed at halftime to St. Louis on the road. They rallied from an 18-point deficit before topping Missouri State in overtime the first time the two teams faced off. Yet their biggest obstacles may have been internal: resolving to return even stronger after a Final Four berth the previous year; staying focused through a long season; managing their own expectations; and dealing with the pressure for perfection that mounted with each successive win. Because as soon the celebration began, so too did the debate: how important is 31-0, if it comes against a comparatively weak schedule?
Supporters of Wichita State endorse their brilliant coach and talented players. Gregg Marshall built Winthrop into a strong mid-major program before beginning his successful run at Wichita State. Forward Cleanthony Early is an All-American candidate, and Fred VanVleet is one of the best point guards in the country. Skeptics point to their schedule. The Missouri Valley Conference does not have the same basketball powerhouses as the ACC or Big Ten. Wichita State cannot match the number of “big wins” over ranked teams compared to other schools. Would they still be undefeated if they played a ranked opponent every weak? Maybe not. Is it more difficult to finish an undefeated season playing in the Big East instead of the MVC? Probably.
Yet these objections detract from the inherent achievement applies itself to a 31-0 record. Talent creates potential. Execution determines results. It is one thing to say that a talented team with a smart coach should win most of their games in a season; it’s another to take the court and win every single time. The Shockers are 31-0 because of execution, because they set a goal for their team and were disciplined enough to accomplish it. Execution is staying focused for an entire season, even if the non-conference schedule is viewed as a time to iron out early season wrinkles. Execution is overcoming a poor shooting night or an early deficit to grind out a win. Execution (or lack thereof) is why Syracuse, the other undefeated Division I team at the time, gave up a 13-point lead to Boston College last week and lost in overtime. Or why a 29-0 Illinois team lost by one to unranked Ohio State in their last game of the 2005 season. There is a reason why 31-0 does not happen every year. It takes the right team, the right circumstances, and yes, a bit of luck, but a lot more skill.
Today’s sports analysis ensures that no accomplishment goes without scrutiny. Opposing teams try harder playing against the best. Games, matchups, even individual plays can be broken down to discover a team’s tendencies or weaknesses. It is more difficult than ever to play “under the radar.” Wichita State played most of their season with a target on their back, and still won; 31 consecutive times. Advanced metrics quantify the strength of schedule and win probability that assigns a number to measure the relative importance of different accomplishments. But on the court, where games are decided, statistics don’t matter. Winning matters. After all the algorithms, there’s only one number that matters to Marshall and the Shockers: zero, which is the number of losses Wichita State had at the beginning of the season, the same number they have now, and the number of other Division I teams that can claim the same.
In the most recent polls, Wichita State was still ranked second. They should be ranked first. Why not reward one of the greatest regular seasons with a well-deserved number one ranking? Polls are subjective anyway, and once the conference tournaments start, rankings matter even less. History will evaluate the Shockers based on their postseason results, but the time to appreciate their regular season is now. The coaches and players stated after their final regular season game that they were still not satisfied. The Shockers have more to accomplish: an MVC championship and another run to Final Four. If they fall short in the games that follow, critics will (unfairly) minimize their regular season accomplishments. They well try to assign this team as another talented mid-major team that didn’t prevail against proven blue-clip programs. I hope this doesn’t happen. In today’s game, it’s more difficult to win, and even more so to win consistently. Running the table through the MVC is no guarantee of postseason success. But who cares? All teams except one will end their journey in the NCAA tournament with a loss. 31-0 shouldn’t be diminished by a schedule or a ranking. A perfect regular season shouldn’t need a qualification. 31-0 speaks for itself. AN