Then came a 68-63 victory over No. 6 Houston, and Wichita State finds itself squarely in the NCAA tournament conversation.
There are other teams like the Shockers. Some are from just outside the power conferences, in the American, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, with limited opportunities to significantly improve their at-large chances. Others are in power leagues and need to get working soon.
And time’s ticking. Selection Sunday is barely three weeks away.
San Diego State (16-4, 0-3 in Quadrant 1 games, 4-1 in Quadrant 2 games)
The No. 25 Aztecs are in better shape than anyone else included in this discussion, and they’ve won seven in a row since getting swept by Utah State. They’re more of a metrics darling than any of the other Mountain West at-large contenders (Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State) and might be able to get away with not having a Quadrant 1 triumph. They’d be wise not to give away too many games down the stretch.
VCU (16-4, 0-3 Q1, 6-0 Q2)
Another team on a winning streak, the Rams have taken six in a row and close out the month against George Mason, Saint Louis and Davidson. The latter two games could be of some value, and piling up Quad 2 will help.
Saint Louis (11-3, 1-1 Q1, 1-0 Q2)
The Billikens have a fine nonconference triumph (LSU) but sputtered after losing nearly all of January to a covid pause. They had won four in a row before a loss Friday at Dayton. And they have a critical week against VCU and Richmond up next. Travis Ford’s bunch will be difficult to fully evaluate, but they’d be well-served picking off at least one of those two teams.
Louisville (11-4, 0-3 Q1, 7-0 Q2)
It’s hard for a team with modest high-end accomplishments to be viewed as favorably as the Cardinals. They did top Virginia Tech, Seton Hall and Duke (all at home), and the 7-0 mark against Quadrant 2 is a welcome sight. It wouldn’t hurt to fix that Quad 1 goose egg, and trips to North Carolina, Duke and No. 18 Virginia Tech plus a home game against No. 7 Virginia provide ample opportunity.
Syracuse (12-6, 0-4 Q1, 2-1 Q2)
The Orange has one victory over a likely at-large team (Virginia Tech at home), plus a couple more against serious one-bid league contenders (Bryant and Northeastern). That … isn’t going to get it done.
North Carolina (13-7, 1-6 Q1, 5-1 Q2)
A closing stretch against Louisville, No. 16 Florida State, Syracuse and Duke provides opportunities. Nonetheless, the Tar Heels’ hand isn’t especially strong; its most notable triumphs came at Duke, against Pac-12 bubbler Stanford on a neutral floor and at home against Syracuse.
Southern Methodist (11-4, 0-3 Q1, 4-0 Q2)
The Mustangs can’t follow the Wichita State path to at-large contention because they’ve already been swept by Houston (though a conference tournament meeting is possible). But they do get two games against the Shockers before the end of the month … assuming they actually play those games. SMU, which won at Dayton and split with Memphis for its most notable victories, hasn’t played since Feb. 8 because of a pause.
Memphis (12-6, 0-2 Q1, 3-3 Q2)
Unlike SMU, the Tigers can adopt the Wichita State playbook, as they close the regular season at home against Houston. That doesn’t solve another problem: A lack of consequential success away from home. Memphis’ best outcomes are home defeats of SMU and Wichita State and a neutral-site romp over Saint Mary’s.
The juggling act continues
The pandemic will probably have some sort of impact on postseason participation next month. At least a few leagues have opted to plan for the near-worst while hoping for the best.
The America East, which along with the Big South has shown an impressive degree of scheduling flexibility, is calling it a regular season after Sunday and spreading out its league tournament over the next three weekends. The Atlantic 10, meanwhile, moved up its conference tournament by a week — except for the title game.
That’s at least an attempt to avoid having teams bow out of the league semifinals just 48 hours before the NCAA unveils its 68-team field. It might be good enough, and it might not be. But at least there’s extra wiggle room built in for both conferences in case virus issues arise.
A thought or two about Duke
College basketball’s tempest in a teapot last week was Duke forward Jalen Johnson choosing to leave the team and enter the NBA draft, citing concerns from a foot injury that kept him out for a stretch earlier this season. Because it was a player at Duke, it naturally generated more attention than it would have at just about any other school not named Kentucky.
Whether Johnson “quit” — and its impact on his pro prospects — is a discussion for others. Ultimately, what’s more immediately interesting is what his departure does for the Blue Devils.
While Johnson was one of Duke’s important offensive pieces, forward Matthew Hurt and guard DJ Steward have been more efficient options. Losing Johnson, who played a combined 23 minutes in his final two games, probably won’t seriously derail an offense that’s second in the ACC in league games in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency metric, despite an uneven 9-8 (7-6 ACC) mark.
The real question is whether Duke’s defense is better off with 7-foot freshman Mark Williams serving as a rim protector than with Johnson sharing the post with Hurt. Defense is the reason the Blue Devils lost three in a row to Miami, North Carolina and Notre Dame this month. Things have been better at that end of the floor the past two games, albeit against shorthanded N.C. State and rebuilding Wake Forest.
In other words, don’t get too carried away by the early returns.
We’ll have a better sense by Monday night. Duke is set to face Virginia and Syracuse in a span of a 49 hours, and both opponents are in the top third of the ACC in offensive efficiency in league play. If the Blue Devils can slow those teams down, it will bode well for their chances of salvaging something from a seemingly lost season.
Six to watch this weekend
Connecticut at No. 10 Villanova (1 p.m. Saturday, Fox): Connecticut star James Bouknight is back from injury, and he had 18 points as the Huskies rolled past Providence. The timing of Bouknight’s return is fortuitous because U-Conn. (10-5, 7-5) now faces Villanova (13-3, 8-2) for the first time since rejoining the Big East.
No. 15 Texas Tech at No. 23 Kansas (2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): The host Jayhawks (16-7, 10-5 Big 12) have rattled off four consecutive victories and gotten their defense well in the process. They’ll go for a season sweep of the Red Raiders (14-6, 6-5), who haven’t played since Feb. 9 and had two games against TCU this week wiped out because of weather in the Lone Star State.
No. 13 West Virginia at No. 12 Texas (3 p.m. Saturday, ABC): Shaka Smart’s Longhorns (13-5, 7-4 Big 12) open a challenging three-game, eight-day stretch that also includes meetings with Kansas and Texas Tech. Texas took the game in Morgantown to cap a 10-1 start to the season, overcoming a 14-point, 16-rebound effort from Derek Culver. The Mountaineers (14-6, 7-4) already have triumphs at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech this season.
Louisville at North Carolina (6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Both teams are mentioned above as needing some high-end results. For Louisville especially, just getting results will help. The Cardinals (11-4, 6-3 ACC) haven’t played since Feb. 1.
No. 3 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State (1 p.m. Sunday, CBS): Both the Wolverines (15-1, 10-1 Big Ten) and the Buckeyes (18-4, 12-4) are in line for No. 1 seeds. Ohio State has won seven in a row heading into its matchup with the School Up North.
Maryland at Rutgers (3 p.m. Sunday, BTN): The visiting Terrapins (13-10, 7-9 Big Ten) just won three games in four days and already have a decent collection of road victories (Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota). But a win at the RAC — always a tough place to play — over the Scarlet Knights (12-8, 8-8) would further boost Maryland’s fortunes.