A magician works with smoke and mirrors and a sexy assistant. Sometimes, a hat and a rabbit are involved. But when you see Gregg Marshall coaching Wichita State in a basketball game, he’s never using props and doing eye-opening tricks.
This is not an illusion, and it’s not about luck.
The Shockers are the first team to reach 30-0 in a season since UNLV in 1990-91, when Jerry Tarkanian was the coach and absolutely no one questioned the Rebels’ credentials because they rolled to the NCAA championship the previous year and were loaded with soon-to-be NBA stars.
In the case of Wichita State, there are several skeptics — oddsmakers and handicappers included — who suspect its spotless record is deceiving.
“Right now, I still have 11 teams that would be small favorites over Wichita,” said Chuck Edel, a handicapper for Pregame.com and SportsXradio.com. “None of them would be more than five or six points, and most of them would be one, two or three points.”
Edel’s list was at 12 before Ohio State was upset at Penn State on Thursday, when he crossed off the Buckeyes. Still, he said four Big Ten teams would be favored over the Shockers, ranked No. 2 in this week’s Associated Press poll, on a neutral court.
Arizona, Kansas, Duke, Florida, Louisville, Virginia, Creighton, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa form Edel’s 11, although the Hawkeyes might disappear from that list soon.
It does not mean Edel would bet all of those teams in a game against Wichita State. He’s projecting the lines based on his power ratings. Point spreads are shaped by public perception.
Could the Shockers beat Duke? Of course. Would the Blue Devils be favored if the teams met in the NCAA Tournament? No doubt.
Interestingly, Edel makes a Syracuse-Wichita State matchup a pick’em. And, obviously, opinions differ on this subject.
Bruce Marshall, a handicapper for The Gold Sheet, places the Shockers a notch higher than Edel.
“We have only four teams — Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Louisville — rated stronger than Wichita, and among those, none are rated more than two points stronger,” said Marshall (Goldsheet.com). “At the moment, we have Villanova and Syracuse rated one point weaker than the Shockers. As far as spreads go, I think those six, including Villanova and Syracuse, would probably be slightly favored over Wichita on a neutral floor.
“Virginia and Wisconsin might be pick’em with Wichita. But I think we could probably say that no more than a half dozen teams would be favored over the Shockers on a neutral, and nobody by more than a couple of points.”
Among devoted college basketball analysts, the Wichita State case is inducing heated debates, similar to how Democrats and Republicans argue over political candidates and issues.
The anti-Shockers argue that Marshall’s team is feasting on a weak schedule, especially in a soft Missouri Valley Conference. That’s true. Wichita State’s best win was Dec. 1 at Saint Louis, which was not ranked in the Top 25 at the time.
I’m in the pro-Shockers crowd, arguing that Wichita State is no fluke and probably would beat about half of the teams on Edel’s list of 11. What happened last season is proof.
The Shockers disposed of Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State on the way to last year’s Final Four, where they led eventual national champion Louisville by 12 points in the second half before falling 72-68. Marshall lost three starters from that team, but he returned four big-time players in forward Cleanthony Early and guards Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet.
Kansas has a far more talented roster. Creighton, with Doug McDermott, and Duke, with Jabari Parker, each boast a better player. But Wichita State is a better definition of a team.
“Some of these mid-major teams like Wichita stay together for four years,” Edel said. “Could you imagine if this Kansas team played together for four years? We’ll never see it.”
Parity is a cliche, but in this era of radical turnover, with so many top players leaving early for the NBA or transferring at the drop of a hat, wide-open NCAA Tournament fields should be the norm rather than the exception.
“I am higher on Wichita State than most and have the Shockers power rated at No. 10,” VegasSportsAuthority.com handicapper Paul Stone said. “They are tournament tested, have a penetrating point guard in VanVleet and an overall veteran cast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wichita make another deep run in March.”
Stone projected the lines on eight Saturday games (home team in CAPS):
FLORIDA (-12) Louisiana State; Kansas (-2) OKLAHOMA STATE; OKLAHOMA (-4) Texas; VIRGINIA (-4) Syracuse; VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH (-2) Saint Louis; San Diego State (-6) FRESNO STATE; Unlv (-7) AIR FORCE; WICHITA STATE (-18) Missouri State.
The Shockers are set to flex their muscles against another weakling, but this is no illusion. Wichita State is legit. The biggest problem it faces is the media attention and pressure that comes with being an undefeated team in March.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.