Column: WSU deserves top spot in poll

Monday, February 24, 2014

In the chummy world of college basketball, everybody knows who sits at the cool kids’ table. The rest need to sit down, shut up and be grateful for the seat at the corner table of the cafeteria, where the mice battle for crumbs spilled by the unwashed.

Wichita State is not welcome at the cool kids’ table and will not be ranked No. 1 when today’s Associated Press college basketball poll is released.

Florida will move into the No. 1 spot with the number in parentheses representing first-place votes being somewhere in the neighborhood of 50. I’ll be one of the dozen or so voting Wichita State first, for no other reason than the Shockers have earned the right to sit atop the poll by going 29-0.

Those desperate to score points with the cool kids — maybe even so many points they’ll get a wave or at least a nod when strolling past their table at a respectful distance — will laugh at such a selection.

That’s fine. Many laughed at the Shockers having the audacity to consider themselves equals to Louisville, Syracuse and Michigan at last year’s Final Four in the Georgia Dome.

Never mind that the Shockers knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State en route to Atlanta. They didn’t belong and still don’t. Just ask the cool kids.

Let’s conveniently forget that nobody played national-champion Louisville tougher in the NCAA Tournament than the Shockers, who couldn’t hold onto a 12-point lead with 13-plus minutes remaining. The Cardinals won their final 16 games and only one team during that winning streak, Wichita State, came within four points of them. The Shockers returned all but 17 points from that 72-68 loss. All but six of Wichita State’s 29 victories have been by double figures.

Despite all that, one of the more fashionable questions asked by analysts — who somehow keep straight faces when asking it — is whether the Shockers would get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament should they run the table, winning their final two regular-season games, plus the Missouri Valley Conference.

Anybody who thinks that the games matter more than the schedules made by athletic administrators over phones across America several months ago must answer that question in the affirmative.

The Missouri Valley was particularly strong a year ago, when the Shockers lost six regular-season games and another in the postseason tournament. Two of those seven losses were dealt by Creighton, now a member of the Big East.

The conference is down this season, but not so down that going 16-0 so far, with 13 of the victories by double digits, doesn’t count as a testament to consistently playing good basketball, no easy accomplishment.

Mock Wichita State’s schedule, but realize that doing so is just shining light on the blue bloods avoiding playing the Shockers based on the everything-to-lose, nothing-to-gain philosophy.

Wichita State won at St. Louis, now a top-15 team. Nobody but the Shockers have won at Indiana State. They can only beat those courageous enough to play them.

It’s not necessarily the team with the best basketball players that deserves to be ranked No. 1, rather the one that plays the best basketball. So far, that has been Wichita State, if only by a hair compared to Florida.

Part of the equation to winning involves not beating yourself. The Shockers average 10.4 turnovers per game. Sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet’s 3.77 assists-to-turnover ratio ranks fifth in the nation. They don’t beat themselves by missing free throws. The three leading scorers — Cleanthony Early (15.8), Ron Baker (13.0) and VanVleet (12.3) — shoot .848, .848 and .835 from the free-throw line. Somebody help me out. Remind me again how it’s easier to shoot free throws against a weak schedule?