We’ve always had a fixation with the perfect.
Perhaps that’s because we are so imperfect. The imperfections are the story lines that rule our lives. The imperfections in society — with people, with government, with laws — are the theme of the nightly news. The imperfections in us are what hold us back from being everything we want to be. And the imperfections in basketball are what compel us to watch the games every night, rather than follow the regurgitation of Las Vegas lines. Regardless of expectations, imperfections get in the way and change everything in a way you’d never expect.
Perfect is unpredictable. And yet now, with two teams still undefeated in mid-February, we are sitting so close to it. On Tuesday, after Wichita State had cruised through its toughest week on paper (traveling to Indiana State and Northern Iowa), the Shockers continued their improbable run with a victory over Southern Illinois. Now, the midmajor stands next to powerhouse Syracuse as the only unblemished teams remaining, with the Orange scooting past Pittsburgh on the road on a 35-foot three-pointer at the buzzer.
Looking through history, of course, we see how rare it is for this trend to continue. The last team to go undefeated all the way to an NCAA title is the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. Since then, only four teams have even made it through the regular-season schedule without a loss: Alcorn State and Indiana State in 1978-79, UNLV in 1990-91 and St. Joseph’s in 2003-04.
Now, it could happen again. While Syracuse has a very tough schedule down the stretch, Wichita State is suddenly looking very close. The Shockers barely have any more scheduled opponents ranked in the top 200.
If we are lucky enough to watch that, we shouldn’t let the Shockers’ schedule discount what they’ve done.
Wichita State might have only passed by one ranked team on the nonconference schedule (Saint Louis) before hitting the Missouri Valley Conference, which without recently departed Creighton is ranked just 12th in the nation. But Gregg Marshall’s squad, with its likable blend of blue-chip recruits and overachieving veterans, has passed every eye test there is. The Shockers are 11-0 away from home and have an offense (eighth) and defense (26th) that both rank among the best in the nation, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy’s website.
And if any old team in a midmajor conference could win all the games it should, more would. As it is, it has been a decade. The number of times it’s happened in the past 40 years can be ticked off on the fingers of one hand.
The Shockers should get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, yes.
But more than that, they deserve our awe and appreciation.
Perfect doesn’t come around very often — but we could be watching it right now.
College basketball short takes
Syracuse came perhaps as close as it has all year to losing a game when the Orange slid out of Pittsburgh with a victory on a three-point buzzer-beater by Tyler Ennis on Wednesday.
But according to some interesting stats dug up by ESPN Stats & Info and written about by Eamonn Brennan — who always has intriguing nuggets in his columns — the dynamic freshman saving the day is not all that rare. During the final five minutes of regulation and overtime games this year, Ennis has been a stunning 8-for-9 from the field and connected on 14 of 14 free throws, adding six assists and no turnovers in that time, Brennan wrote. On game-tying or go-ahead plays, Ennis is 4-for-4 from the floor and 8-for-8 from the line.
• Speaking of the Orange — those who believe Syracuse has had a much stronger season than Wichita State should think twice, Ken Pomeroy said. The respected stats guru pointed out in his blog that before the Pitt game, all five of Syracuse’s road victories — St. John’s, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami (Fla.) and Wake Forest — were less than intimidating based on the weaker home-court advantages in those buildings. Along the same lines, folks should take into account the incredible home atmosphere at the Carrier Dome, which has been well-documented. So like the Shockers, Syracuse has benefited from a lighter schedule as well, Pomeroy argued, although things should get considerably more dicey down the stretch. Pomeroy gives the Orange only a 6.1 percent chance at finishing the regular season undefeated, compared to 70.2 percent for Wichita State.
• Should experience equal success? Not this year, Dan Hanner of realgm.com said, pointing out that teams such as Harvard, Boise State, Boston College, North Dakota State, Elon and Penn all returned extremely high percentages of minutes from last season, but none of those teams has improved within its league, and most of them have actually gotten notably worse. However, Oklahoma State headlines that disappointing group. Despite returning 89 percent of minutes from a very strong 2012-13 team, the current Cowboys have stumbled to a 4-6 record in the Big 12 while their defensive and margin-of-victory numbers have gotten worse.
Big Ten power rankings
1. Michigan: The Wolverines are the only Big Ten team that hasn’t lost at home in conference play.
2. Michigan State: The Spartans haven’t lost to a team outside the top 50 all year.
3. Iowa: Beating Michigan at home was the victory the Hawkeyes needed to prove they belong with the top dogs.
4. Ohio State: What a strange year for the Buckeyes. A 15-0 start, 1-4 stretch, and now a resurgence with road victories at Wisconsin and Iowa. Capping it with a loss to Michigan is nothing to be ashamed of.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers, having achieved an elusive victory over Michigan State, also seem to be turning a corner.
6. Nebraska: Tim Miles wanted to prove us all wrong for voting the Cornhuskers last in the league, and he is.
7. Indiana: The middle is still muddled, but the Hoosiers get the nod with their victories over Michigan and Wisconsin.
8. Northwestern: The Wildcats are still finding that consistency, but Chris Collins has worked wonders.
9. Penn State: Playing better than expected, though one of its two losses in the past six games came to lowly Illinois.
10. Minnesota: The Gophers have dropped four of five and are sitting firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble.
11. Purdue: The Boilermakers haven’t yet shown the ability to compete with better-than-average teams.
12. Illinois: Everyone seems to be getting victories in this league, and when your squad has lost nine of 10, that’s not good.