By: Justin Bjorseth
It is a conference that has seen its share of cinderella stories in the past. Just last year, it was Northern Iowa who took part in two of the most thrilling games of the entire NCAA tournament. The red hot Panthers stunned the Texas Longhorns on a half court shot at the buzzer, and then surrendered what seemed to be a locked up game against Texas A&M the following round. This was not the first time they found themselves busting brackets. In 2010, millions of brackets were ripped to shreds when they took out the number one overall seed Kansas Jayhawks.
Wichita State became a household name in college hoops back in 2013 when the Shockers fought all the way to the final four, before ultimately falling to the soon-to-be national champion Louisville Cardinals. They followed that up with an undefeated season, and then a win over in-state rival Kansas in the tournament the year after that.
As we look towards the 2016-2017 season, it appears that we will see much of the same as the past few years. Despite the loss of longtime leaders Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, the Shockers enter as the favorites to capture their fourth straight regular season conference title. In the preseason poll, they received 37 of the 42 first place votes. The others were cast for Illinois State (4), and Northern Iowa (1). Those teams are ranked second and third in the preseason poll respectively. It is worth noting, however, that the standings do not always matter in the conference. Northern Iowa came in fifth last year, won the tournament, and went dancing.
Members from those three teams make up four of the five players on the preseason all conference team. The lone outcast of that group is Brenton Scott of Indiana State. Scott is also the only returning player from the conference’s first or second teams last season, as the other nine departed as seniors.
Outside of the three teams listed above, there are two more teams that can threaten to contend in the conference. Some may call these “Sleepers.” The first is Indiana State, who will be lead by POY favorite Brenton Scott. They bring back another couple of starters around him, and have been to the conference semifinals four times in the last six years. It appears that a breakout is just around the corner. The other is Missouri State. They simply have experience, returning four starters from last years squad. They have a solid mix of young and veteran, perhaps the best scoring offense in the conference, and will be hungry to win. When you have all that, along with players that have a lot of experience being on the court together, that is a deadly formula for opponents.
Those two teams should find themselves right behind the likes of the conference elites in the standings. One of them may even slide past Northern Iowa in the standings, as the Panthers return just two starters from a team that didn’t exactly find the fountain of success during regular season play last season. Illinois State, with who they’re bringing back, and Wichita State, by using that same winning formula, should be head and shoulders above the rest of the teams when it’s all said and done.
It may not be a one bid league and may not even require an upset in the conference tournament to get more than one team in. The Shockers and Redbirds may both post impressive enough records in the season to find their way in. The issue becomes if one of those teams doesn’t win the tournament, both will not be finding themselves getting at-large bids.
It will be fun to see how things pan out in a mid-major conference that is returning 60% of its starters. That’s a recipe for some brackets to be busted come March.
(Featured Image: Jimmy Emerson/DVM, Flickr)