Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Staggering. That is all that can be said about Wichita State at this point.
Following another drubbing of a Missouri Valley Conference foe, this time Bradley (69-49) on Tuesday, the Shockers became the first team ever to reach 30 wins with no losses during the regular season.
Some teams have come close. Illinois went 29-0 before losing in the final game of the regular season against Ohio State in 2006. Stanford and Saint Joseph's each made bids during the 2003-04 season and UNLV, the most recent team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated, was 27-0 prior to play in the Big West Conference Tournament in 1991.
But all of them came up short or ran out of time (UNLV didn't have 30 regular- season games), while Wichita State is still perfect 30 games in.
For a long time, the Shockers' unprecedented run was given second billing to Syracuse's attempt at a perfect season, but now they stand alone, with their performance this year one of the most enduring and consistent story lines of the campaign.
To those who would disparage the accomplishment by pointing to weak conference competition, clearly you haven't been paying attention. Wichita State has not only won each of its games in the Missouri Valley Conference, which is admittedly more diluted after Creighton's departure, it has dominated them. The Shockers own a plus-15.1 scoring margin in conference play, with only three games decided by single digits, all of those coming on the road.
In their non-conference schedule, the Shockers did not have a slew of nationally ranked foes to contend with, but they earned a number of impressive wins, including triumphs over Davidson (81-70), BYU (75-62) and 10th-ranked Saint Louis (70-65), which is 19-1 since that contest.
Questioning the Shockers looks even more ridiculous when one takes into consideration what this team did last year. After all, Wichita State came just a few points short of knocking off eventual national champion Louisville in the Final Four. Along the way, the Shockers topped Ohio State (70-66), La Salle (72-58), No. 1 seed Gonzaga (76-70) and Pittsburgh (73-55). Not exactly a slate of punching bags.
A lot, of course, changes from year to year, so implying this team will be dominant in the NCAA Tournament once again solely because of last year is wrong. However, having that type of postseason experience certainly won't hurt.
That is especially true considering the makeup of the current team. While there are no All-American candidates on the roster, there are a number of contributors who play at a high level and remember what it takes to endure the marathon that is the NCAA Tournament.
Chief among them is forward Cleanthony Early. The 6-foot-8 forward, who averaged 16.2 points and 7.6 rebounds during last year's NCAA Tournament, has improved in just about every phase of the game this season. He is currently on pace to set career highs in scoring (15.7 ppg), rebounds (5.9 rpg), 3-point field goal percentage (.352) and free-throw percentage (.852). His play has faltered a bit recently, but as he showed last season, he can come up big when the Shockers need him.
While Early is the cornerstone, and the name most remember from last season, the backcourt duo of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have done more than their fair share to keep things rolling in 2014.
Baker has developed into more of a scoring threat this season, averaging 13.7 ppg and providing the Shockers with a 3-point threat. He has scored more than 20 points in five games and is knocking down 36.2 percent of his attempts from 3-point range, while doing his part in handling and moving the ball to other open shooters.
Early and Anthony have been instrumental to the efforts, but VanVleet may be the most important player for coach Greg Marshall's squad. The 5-11 guard has made a huge leap this season, jumping his scoring average by eight points and more than doubling his assists. VanVleet's greatest attribute is his quickness, which have allowed him to run the point, find shooters in transition and get into opposing passing lanes, en route to the third-most steals in the MVC (two per game).
No team, even with the talent the Shockers possess at such key spots, can succeed without someone guiding the ship. Wichita State is fortunate enough to have one of the best coaches, not only at the mid-major level, but in the country, in Marshall.
The Shockers have come a long way from the 11-20 squad in Marshall's first season. They have won at least 25 games in five straight seasons and will be making a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Marshall has always preached defense, but this season's team is the most dominant squad he has had in his seven seasons in Wichita. The Shockers are 14th nationally in scoring defense (60.4 ppg) and 26th in opponent field goal percentage (.397). The last time Wichita State allowed less than 61 ppg over a season was in 1950-51 during an era in which the shot clock and 3-point line did not exist.
Great coaching, commitment to defense and a strong core have led Wichita State into the history books in more ways than one. Those same attributes also will lend themselves to another lengthy NCAA Tournament run.
Except this time, no one should be surprised.