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How can Wichita State build on the two best years in program history?

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The NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event in the United States, and if it wasn’t for the unification of ‘Murica in support of the stars and stripes at the World Cup this past June, I think that you would be hard-pressed to find anything that can hold a vice-grip on the ever-dwindling attention span of an entire nation of sports fans for a month like March Madness can.

But while you are filling out your brackets and wildly cheering on that No. 13 seed, hoping a team without a single player that you can name pulls off the upset, the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament can be a fickle beast for the people participating in it.

One tough draw, one off night, and an entire season’s body of work can be forgotten in the annals of history. Deep tournament runs and early tourney exits are remembered much more vividly than, say, a regular season conference title. A 25-win season might get a coach a raise. A trip to the Sweet 16 will get him a better job. The tourney is always holding trump cards.

Case in point: Wichita State.

RELATED: K-State’s Marcus Foster hasn’t forgotten or forgiven teams that pulled offers

This past season, the Shockers put together arguably the single-greatest regular season of all-time. They entered the NCAA tournament at 34-0 after steamrolling through league play with very few real challenges while posting the best regular season record in the history of college basketball. But thanks to No. 8-seed Kentucky, a preseason top five team that didn’t figure out how to play together until the night before the SEC tournament, the Shockers were sent packing without reaching the second weekend of the tournament.

All it took was one game — one game where Wichita State played as well as they had all season, losing one of the best-played, most entertaining games you’ll watch — to turn a historical year into a footnote for a team that didn’t make the Sweet 16.

“It was really great to go 35-0, that’s a really great accomplishment,” star guard Ron Baker told NBCSports at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy last month. “But the regular season is kind of a season in itself. When you get to the tournament, it almost feels like a whole nother year. A different season. And for us, that result was pretty disappointing.”

Wichita State had gone almost a full year in between losses, and for Baker, it was difficult for him to process that such a successful season had come to such an abrupt halt. “I reflected on it a lot,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until the sting from the upset wore off that he was truly able to appreciate what he and his team were able to do. “Once the season’s over and you sit down for a couple days, you slow down and think about what you accomplished.

“And it’s pretty phenomenal, especially when you look back in history. We’re the only team to go 35-0. It’s been special.”

RELATED: How borderline Division I recruits fight for scholarships in July

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“We had an amazing year,” point guard Fred Van Vleet told NBCSports during a break in the action at the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey in June. “We don’t really define our season off of that game.”

That appreciation wasn’t there while the Shockers were in the middle of their run, however. They weren’t thinking about what an undefeated season would mean historically or how they had a chance to get their names in the record books. They were focused on winning, on doing the things that it took to make sure that they kept that ‘0’ in their loss column.

They were on a mission.

“It was really hard to enjoy it during the season,” Baker said. “There’s practice every day. Weights, lifting. And we’re all competitive. [We did our] best to have fun with it.”

The season before Wichita State made a run at perfection, they were the latest in a long line of cinderellas from the mid-major ranks that traipsed their way through their region and into the Final Four.

And they did it despite the fact that their regular season ended in frustration.

In 2012-2013, the Shockers started the season 19-2, going 8-1 in Missouri Valley play and climbing to No. 15 in the country before losing three straight and five of their last ten regular season games. They wound up in the 8-9 game in the same bracket as Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed. But between a hot-shooting second half that sparked an upset of the ‘Zags and a beneficial draw in the later rounds that gave the Shockers matchups with La Salle and Ohio State, Marshall’s band of misfits made it all the way to the Final Four. And if it wasn’t for Louisville guard Tim Henderson’s heroics, they might have found themselves in the national title game.

It creates a weird dynamic, as the Shockers may end up being better remembered for a season in which they struggled through February and early March than for the year where they won their first 35 games. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but the casual fan will likely put more stock in winning four games on national television in the NCAA tournament than they will 34 games on ESPN3 in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Springfield, Missouri.

RELATED: A Division III transfer is being recruited by Michigan?

It also creates expectations. Baker is a redshirt sophomore. He’s entering his fourth year in the program, during which time the Shockers have made three NCAA tournaments, won two regular season titles and a MVC tournament title, reached a Final Four and earned a No. 1 seed with an undefeated regular season. Prior to his arrival, the Shockers had made one NCAA tournament since 1988.

What happens if the Shockers “only” win the conference and fail to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season?

“If we would’ve done that six years ago at Wichita State, they would have been really pleased,” Baker said. “Now, to make the tournament, it’s expected of us,” but to listen to the two Shockers stars speak, those expectations and that notoriety are what drive them.

“[Success brings] a little bit more popularity, people recognize you. Respect as well,” Van Vleet said. “Those two things are nice. With that comes a lot more work that you’ve got to put in to keep getting better. You don’t want to plateau out.”

What “a lot more work” includes has been early morning workouts for Van Vleet, Baker and senior guard Tekele Cotton, as they spent part of their summer waking up at 6:30 a.m. to workout before coaching at Wichita State’s summer basketball camp. And that would be just the first or two or three workouts on a typical day.

“I’ve never done that before,” Van Vleet said with a laugh. “I’m not a morning guy.”

For Baker, that work included improving his mid-range game, floaters and 8-10 foot finishes, as well as his ability to create separation off the bounce and get to the rim on straight line drives. For Van Vleet, he’s been focused on improving his athleticism and his ability to be a scorer, which is something that both players will need to improve upon without Cleanthony Early around to shoulder the scoring load.

And if they can do that, the Shockers should once again be a team capable of making the Sweet 16 and advancing further, but that won’t leave them satisfied.

“Honestly, we look at [Gonzaga, Butler and VCU] and see what they’ve built, and I’m sure Coach Marshall feels that he wants to build something like that, but the goal is always a national championship,” Van Vleet said. “Make it to that game, play in that game, win that game.

“I would be lying to say that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season.”

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason is having an incredible year

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks in action against the Duke Blue Devils in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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One quick note before we get into these rankings: Creighton’s Mo Watson Jr. has been dropped out of them completely.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last week and haven’t heard, he tore his ACL and is done for the season. As of today, he deserves to be on this list somewhere – maybe even as high as No. 5 – but since he will not be returning at any point, I’ve taken him off the list.

I also dropped Luke Kennard out of the top ten. I still think that he is the best player on the Duke roster and the guy that they should be running their offense through, but the fact of the matter is that he’s just not doing that. And when a team with as much talent on it as Duke has is struggling the way that the Blue Devils are struggling, it’s hard to give anyone in that program an award for anything.

On to the top ten:

1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: By this point in the season, freaky outlier stats are supposed to have regressed to the mean, but that hasn’t happened with Mason. He’s still averaging 20.1 points and 5.4 assists for the nation’s No. 1 team, but what’s even more impressive is that he’s shooting 53.7 percent from three while attempting more than four per game. And Mason is the starting point guard for Kansas. His shooting isn’t close to the most valuable thing he does for this team, which should give you an idea of just how good he’s been.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart was terrific last week in Villanova’s win over Providence, finishing with 26 points, six boards and four assists. Most of his heroics came earlier on in the season, which some of the folks just tuning into college hoops these days may not have seen. And if you haven’t had a chance to watch Hart play yet, make sure you do. He’s not the same player he was a season ago.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: While I still believe that there is a clear-cut top three in the Player of the Year race, Ball trails the top two in my mind. His offensive numbers are terrific and his effect on the culture of the UCLA program is still underrated, but it’s also become very clear that the Bruins’ defensive struggles are something that could cost them a shot at a national title, and Ball has never been known for his ability on that end of the floor.

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4. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: We all got to see what Fox’s value truly is to Kentucky on Saturday. UK’s star point guard rolled his ankle midway through the first half against South Carolina, when the Wildcats held a big lead on the second-place Gamecocks. South Carolina came roaring back after Fox went out and kept things close for much of the rest of the game, before UK was able to pull away late. Isaiah Briscoe filled in for him at the point, and went scoreless with seven turnovers in the game.

5. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
6. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: The debate between Caleb Swanigan and Ethan Happ for Big Ten Player of the Year is heating up, and it’s one that will likely rage throughout the rest of the season. They are the star players on the two most relevant Big Ten title contenders, and they just so happen to play the same position and put up similar numbers.

The argument for Happ is pretty simple: He’s a better defender than Swanigan, and it’s not particularly close. One example? Swanigan and 16 steals in more than 1500 career minutes. Happ has 15 steals in 180 minutes in Big Ten play this season. Then when you factor in the pace that Purdue and Wisconsin play at and the fact that Swanigan averages six more minutes than Happ, their per-40 numbers are more or less similar. Swanigan is an improved but Happ is still a better passer and he’s not a turnover machine.

If you lean Happ, I don’t think you’re wrong.

But as of today, Swanigan gets my vote simply because of the role he plays for Purdue and the value that he has in how that team runs their offense. Happ has been Wisconsin’s best player this season, but the difference in the Wisconsin that we see now and the Wisconsin that we saw in November is that Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have accepted their respective roles. Hayes’ has been particularly important, accepting that he needs to be a point forward for this team to reach their ceiling.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 21: Reggie Lynch #22 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers fouls Ethan Happ #22 of the Wisconsin Badgers while shooting the ball during the second half of the game on January 21, 2017 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Ethan Happ (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

7. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: It’s hard to pick between Justin Jackson and Berry for who should be deserving of being North Carolina’s Player of the Year candidate, but I think that it’s Berry simply because he’s the guy that makes their offense run. Jackson has turned into UNC’s go-to guy, the player that seems to make every big shot and who gets his number called on critical possessions, but it’s Berry who makes the Tar Heel offense work for the other 39 minutes of the game. If you lean Jackson, I have no qualms. They’ve both been terrific.

8. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: While everyone is celebrating the return and Allonzo Trier and the emergence of Kobi Simmons at UCLA, they are overlooking the fact that Markkanen has consistently been the best player for the Wildcats this season and spent Saturday outplaying T.J. Leaf, another potential lottery pick.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss has come back to earth a little bit since putting up 19 points and six assists on Saint Mary’s in Gonzaga’s 23-point win, but he still leads Gonzaga in scoring and assists and is second in rebounding despite being a 6-foot-2 point guard.

10. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The 6-foot-10 Motley went for 32 points and 20 boards against Texas last week, backing that up with 15 points and 11 boards in a win over TCU. On Feb. 1st, we’ll get to see him go up against Kansas for the first time this season.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Luke Kennard, Duke
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Melo Trimble, Maryland

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Caleb Swanigan #50 of the Purdue Boilermakers dunks the ball during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Caleb Swanigan (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Previewing Kansas-West Virginia and Virginia-Notre Dame

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 12:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks passes around Jevon Carter #2  and Nathan Adrian #11 of the West Virginia Mountaineers in the first half during the championship game of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on March 12, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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No. 2 Kansas at No. 18 West Virginia, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN): The big game of the night lost a little bit of its luster this week, as West Virginia not only dropped a home game to Oklahoma but followed that up with a loss at Kansas State.

The Mountaineers have the nation’s most disruptive press, but it hasn’t been all that effective in recent weeks. In their last three games, West Virginia has committed more turnovers than they have forced. That’s not a good sign for a team that relies on the easy baskets they can get in transition to avoid having to rely on playing half court basketball, where they struggle.

And here’s the thing about these Kansas Jayhawks: I’m not sure there is a worse matchup for West Virginia when they are struggling to get their pressure clicking. I’ve always believed there is a ceiling for teams playing the way that Press Virginia plays for one, simple reason: They rely on their opponents making mistakes to win. Good teams have good guards, and good guards are good because they don’t make mistakes.

Kansas?

They have the current favorite for National Player of the Year in Frank Mason III as well as Devonte’ Graham, a potential first round pick that, if he was allowed to play on the ball full time, could probably be an all-Big 12 point guard. And that’s before you consider that, these days, the Jayhawks are essentially playing a four-guard lineup, rotating through Josh Jackson, LaGerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk.

  • PREDICTION: I like Kansas to win this game, even though I know that we are just two weeks removed from these same Mountaineers forcing 29 turnovers in a 21-point win over No. 1 Baylor, handing the Bears their only loss of the season. Kansas opened at (+6), but if you can still get them at (+3.5), I think you have to take it.

No. 12 Virginia at No. 14 Notre Dame, 8:00 p.m. (ACC Network): This is such a fascinating matchup of styles all around. Notre Dame is one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams, and the way that Virginia defends – their Packline Defense – encourages opponents to try and shoot jumpers over the top of the defense.

But Virginia is also terrific at cutting off penetration into the lane, particularly when their opponents are running ball-screen actions, and Notre Dame’s offense is built around drive-and-kick threes that come off of high ball-screens involving Matt Farrell. And frankly, I don’t know if there are five teams in college basketball that have coaches that are better and drilling home game-plans and systems than Tony Bennett and Mike Brey.

All in all, this should be a fun, well-played basketball game, even if it isn’t as uptempo as you might like.

  • PREDICTION: Notre Dame is leading the ACC right now, yet they are an underdog at home to a Virginia team that isn’t the same Virginia team that we’ve seen in recent season? Give me the Irish (+1).

No. 1 Villanova at Marquette, 8:00 p.m. (FS1): Marquette has one of the nation’s best offenses and they are coming off of a win at Creighton where they put up 102 points on the Bluejays. That said, the Golden Eagles are not good defensively, and not only will the Wildcats be able to matchup with Marquette’s small-ball lineups, but they’ll be able to take advantage of that lack of defensive discipline on the other end of the floor.

  • PREDICTION: I like Villanova (-5), but I love the over (+/- 151.5).

No. 21 Purdue at Michigan State, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2): This is a huge game for Michigan State, who is much closer to the bubble than Spartan fans are used to being. But the Boilermakers have a distinct advantage in one spot: the paint. That’s because Caleb Swanigan, who has played at an all-american level this season, decommitted from Michigan State and went to Purdue. Watching him go up against Nick Ward should be entertaining for those that like seeing big, physical land warriors do battle on the block.

  • PREDICTION: I think Tom Izzo works his magic and Michigan State (+2) wins outright.

NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to unveil top four seeds on Feb. 11th

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Following in the footsteps of the College Football Playoff, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will be unveiling the top 16 teams in a televised Feb. 11th special, the first-ever bracket preview show.

Michigan State AD Mark Hollis will be in studio with Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis to unveil what the bracket would look like on Feb. 11th, seeding the top four teams in each region and, essentially, giving a snapshot of how the best teams in the country stand up at that moment in time.

“We are excited about giving the fans a glimpse to what the men’s basketball committee is thinking at this point of the season, and creating a buzz as we look towards Selection Sunday,” Hollis said in the NCAA’s release. “It’s important to recognize after this list has been released, there is still a significant portion of the regular season to be played and every league must stage its conference tournament. There’s potential for quite a bit of movement until we do it for real March 12, but this early peek will give everyone insight as to where the committee stands as we hit the stretch run of the regular season.”

On the one hand, I hate the idea of this. It’s a way to create ratings for a TV show that is going to make the public at-large expect the committee to hold to their projections, and it helps to spoil one of the best things about Selection Sunday: the shock of the bracket reveal. This is a slippery slope. If millions and millions of people tune in, the next step is to make this a weekly occurrence the way that the College Football Playoff reveal is a weekly occurrence.

The other issue is that it will box the committee into decisions before we have all the data. Forming an opinion when there are still a third of conference play and conference tournaments left is a dangerous thing to do.

But the show is also going to create buzz.

There’s no denying that, on Tuesday nights during college football season, the biggest story in all of sports is how the college football rankings shake out. Who is projected to be in the Final Four? Who is getting left out? It dominates social, it dominates the blogosphere, it dominates discussion on sports talk radio and shows like First Take and PTI.

And how often do we lament the fact that college basketball doesn’t dominates headlines or sports talk until the tournament starts? How often do we say that this is a sport that only matters in March? How often do we try and drum up different events in November and December as ways to drive interest in college hoops?

This show will do that, and for the most part, it’s generally harmless. There is more than a month between the bracket preview and the bracket reveal. That’s a quarter of the season, before you factor in conference tournaments.

It’s also worth pointing out that there really is no difference between this reveal and bringing on any other armchair bracketologist to discuss who might end up being a No. 1 seed. These discussions are had on every show and in every college basketball story written between the end of the Super Bowl and the start of the NCAA tournament. This show cuts out the middlemen and goes straight to the source: the Chair of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

It’s also worth noting that, unlike its college football counterpart, this reveal will include 16 teams everyone knows are locks to be in the NCAA tournament. So someone projected as a No. 1 seed falls to a No. 3 seed because their late-season schedule was weak and they lost two games they shouldn’t have. Whatever. That team is still in the tournament. If the NCAA really wanted things to get interesting, they’d project the 10 seeds, 11 seeds and the First Four, which are usually the last 8-10 teams to receive at-large bids.

All in all, this is probably a net-positive for college basketball, and it seems unlikely that we’re only going to have one bracket reveal in future years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this turn into a weekly deal.

I don’t have to love it.

But we might as well make peace with it.

CBT Podcast: Reminiscing about a road trip and the NCAA Selection Committee meeting

JACKSONVILLE, FL - MARCH 19:  Mississippi Rebels and Xavier Musketeers players run by the logo at mid-court during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Here is the latest episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast, featuring my former colleague Troy Machir talking about a road trip we took five years ago and Andy Glockner going over what was discussed at the meeting of the analytic minds in Indianapolis with the NCAA Selection Committee this weekend.

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Arizona’s Miller elaborates on Trier’s suspension

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Allonzo Trier #35 of the Arizona Wildcats goes up for a layup against TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins during the first half of the game at Pauley Pavilion on January 21, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Arizona sophomore guard Allonzo Trier sat out the first 19 games of the season for reasons not made clear until last week.

Now that Trier has been cleared to play after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, Wildcats coach Sean Miller is able to elaborate on the process and the need to be so tight-lipped through it.

“It’s a process that had no history,” he said during his weekly news conference Monday. “I think the NCAA did the best they could. They were extremely fair. I think they really had the student-athlete welfare at the forefront of a lot of things. It might not have felt that way to the outside, but they were very communicative, very direct, vert cooperative, trying to hold to the standards that they need to hold these types of issues to.”

Trier was expected to be the key cog for No. 7 Arizona after bypassing a chance at the NBA to return for his sophomore season. Instead, he was replaced at the last minute for Pac-12 media day and spent the first three months of the season on the bench unable to play.

Trier issued a statement last Wednesday saying he tested positive for a banned PED he received to treat an injury from someone not affiliated with the university. Trier was conditionally cleared to play in November, contingent upon the PED leaving his system. He was cleared before Saturday’s game against UCLA, finishing with 12 points in the Wildcats’ 96-85 victory.

“There are just too many unknowns,” Miller said of not providing information on Trier’s suspension before last week. “The No. 1 here is to protect the student-athlete privacy of a situation that was very complicated and to not at all harm him in any way. There are no secrets, nobody is hiding anything. It’s just a matter of trying to do right by the young man. We would much rather have the criticism pointed toward us than to do something that is unnecessary and could potentially harm a young person.”

Arizona (18-2, 7-0 Pac-12) has played well through Trier’s suspension and a string of injuries, winning 11 straight games before his return on Saturday. Their 12th consecutive win moved the Wildcats up seven spots in Monday’s AP Top 25.