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Commentary: Don’t Count Out Wichita State

On Saturday, Wichita State became the first undefeated NCAA men’s basketball team in a decade, finishing the regular season a perfect 31-0, including 18-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers’ accomplishment is undoubtedly historic, but heading into March Madness, are they the best team on the court?

Considering strength of schedule, probably not. Wichita State ran the table without playing a single team ranked in the top 25 at the time of the matchup, and is ranked 103rd in strength of schedule. While most experts regard the Shockers among the elite squads in the NCAA, a tough road to a national title lies ahead, starting with next week’s MVC championship, which they need to win to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Wichita State might be the most underrated undefeated in recent memory, but this is a team that made it to the Final Four just last year and has proven it can hold its own with the major conference powerhouses in the Big Dance. And let’s not be so quick to dismiss an unblemished regular season record, even one against an overall weaker field.

Perfection requires that elusive collision of timing and talent, with some luck thrown in for good measure. Since the tournament era began in 1938, only 26 teams have finished the regular season undefeated, and only three teams have run the table since 1980.

The last team to accomplish the feat was St. Joseph’s in 2003-04, led by future first-round draft picks Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. The 27-0 Hawks saw their perfect run end at the hands of Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament, but still retained No. 1 seeding for the NCAA tournament.

After a first-round bye, St. Joseph’s advanced through its next three opponents, including an impressive Sweet Sixteen win over a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team. True perfection was not to be, however, as the team fell to second-ranked Oklahoma State on a Josh Lucas 3-pointer with 6.9 seconds left.

Before Wichita State and St. Joseph’s, the only team in the last 35 years to run the table was UNLV in the 1990-91 season. The Runnin’ Rebels, then a member of the Big West Conference, entered the season as the reigning national champions and returning four of their five starters, including Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon. Johnson was undeniably one of the most dominant players the college game has ever seen and the team had manhandled its regular season opponents.

But as with Wichita State, some in the national press dismissed UNLV’s perfect record because of the relatively weak field in the Big West. The Rebels marched through the tournament to the Final Four, defeating a Georgetown team led by Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo.

In the semifinal round, however, UNLV was stunned by sixth-ranked Duke, a team it had beaten by 30 points in the title game the year before.

Led by Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and freshman Grant Hill, the Blue Devils ended the Rebels’ win streak of 45 games. That UNLV squad is considered one of the most formidable teams ever assembled, but to this day, that Final Four loss casts a long shadow on its extraordinary, undefeated season.

With more widespread proliferation of talent and longer schedules than ever before, Wichita State’s perfect season should be given the credit it’s due as a historic achievement, but this story is still incomplete. A team’s performance in the regular season means little come March, and a perfect season requires a national championships to be immortalized. Only seven teams have ridden the wave of perfection all the way to a national title — the last being the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers under Bob Knight.

Heading into this year’s tournament, Wichita State has even more to prove as it fights to remain in the conversation with the likes of Florida, Kansas, and Syracuse.

But that zero in the loss column coupled with last year’s showing on the national stage means a deep tournament run by the Shockers should come as a surprise to no one.