(TNS) — Wichita State's appeal is obvious this season: The top eight scorers, including six seniors, return from a 31-win team that was ranked in the top-10 of Ken Pomeroy's efficiency metrics.
But it also true that the Shockers were a No. 10 seed that lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and whose marquee win was against Dayton. Only four of Wichita State's 31 victories last season came against competition in the top-100 of the final RPI report released by the NCAA.
Not to mention the team's two most talented players, Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie, have been sidelined by foot injuries this dall and could miss the start of the season.
"Usually when a team moves up a league and still isn't in one of those Power 6 conferences, in some ways it's a leap of faith to pick them in the top 10," ESPN's Jeff Borzello said. "But with Wichita State, it's different."
ESPN and CBS Sports had WSU No. 5 in their preseason rankings, while KenPom had the Shockers No. 4. Sports Illustrated tabbed WSU to win the AAC and the USA Today Coaches Poll had WSU ranked No. 8, the highest preseason ranking in 36 years for the program.
Even Vegas gives Wichita State the eighth-best odds in college basketball to cut down the nets in San Antonio in 2018.
"It's not crazy to think of them (as a title contender), it's crazy not to think of them like that," CBS Sports' Gary Parrish said. "There's no doubt Wichita State belongs in the top 10."
So why do so many feel comfortable taking that leap of faith with Wichita State?
"You look at what Wichita State has done in the last five years in the NCAA Tournament and they have consistently won and advanced," said Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports. "They're a team that has done it in March before. I know the elite freshmen get a lot of attention in today's game, but the most important part to winning big is having a culture in place and Wichita State absolutely has that with Gregg Marshall."
Another crucial element national observers cite is Shamet, who pushed Wichita State to another level when he took over point-guard duties midway through last season. His averages — 11.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists — aren't typical for a player generating All-America buzz, but Shamet shot 47 percent from the field, including making 72 three-pointers at a 44-percent clip, to go along with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
It also doesn't hurt he scored 20 points and didn't commit a turnover in 34 minutes against future NBA player De'Aaron Fox in Wichita State's highest-profile game, a 65-62 loss to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I always start with point guard play when looking at teams that can go deep in the NCAA tourney and I feel that when healthy Shamet is arguably the best point guard in the country," ESPN's Jeff Goodman said in an e-mail. "This is not a great year for point guards in college basketball, so Shamet stands out even more than usual. He's different than just about everyone else due to his length and versatility. He's effective both on and off the ball."
Conner Frankamp is a dead-eye shooter and capable of taking pressure off Shamet; Zach Brown is the team's best defender; McDuffie vontinues to develop as a two-way force; and the frontcourt might be as deep as any in the nation with Shaquille Morris, Rashard Kelly, Darral Willis, and Rauno Nurger all returning for their senior seasons.
Wichita State has ranked as a top-20 defense by KenPom's efficiency metrics for five straight seasons and has been a top-20 offense for three of the last four seasons.
Some have nit-picked that Wichita State's efficiency was helped by playing more than half of its schedule against Missouri Valley teams. WSU's consistent success in the postseason seems to legitimize the numbers, but it is a fair question to ask how the Shockers will fare against more consistently good competition in the AAC.
"There's still somewhat of a prove-it factor there," Borzello said. "Are they as good as the metrics say or are they a team that was bloated by the fact they won 20 games against Missouri Valley teams? I don't think we really know how good this team is. We have an idea from how they played in March, but I still think there are question marks."
"You think of it from a recruiting standpoint and the Missouri Valley had, what, maybe one top-150 prospect they were going against?" Parrish said. "In the AAC, almost every team has at least one of those guys. But with Wichita State, I don't think it will be a problem. When we've seen them on the big stage, it's not like they've ever not looked the part or not looked talented or tough enough."
While Shamet and McDuffie are receiving some interest from the NBA, neither are expected lottery picks. The majority of teams ranked alongside Wichita State feature NBA talent, but none of the national analysts viewed that as a problem for the Shockers.
"I don't think you have to have that to win in college basketball," Parrish said. "Obviously, it's better when you do have that. Would I rather have a lottery pick? Of course. But I don't think it's necessary. You can still be a great college basketball team without pro talent."
When asked about the one thing that made them pause about putting the Shockers in their top-10, each national reporter had the same response: injuries.
Even though Shamet is expected to be available in time for the Maui Invitational and McDuffie should return by the start of conference play, the missed time this offseason could be a factor.
"(Michigan State's) Miles Bridges has been putting in work all offseason; (KU's) Devonte' Graham has been putting in work all offseason," Parrish said. "Landry hasn't and Markis hasn't. That could be a problem. They might take some early losses without Markis, which does affect your seed on Selection Sunday, which affects your path to a Final Four."
"People can say they'll be back by the start of the season or by the end of December, but we've seen this before where certain injuries sometimes take longer to recover than expected," Borzello said. "If those injuries maybe drag into conference play, then maybe Wichita State only gets a 6 or 7 seed and suddenly they're at a disadvantage in March."
But assuming Shamet and McDuffie make a return to full health, no one had any questions about this team.
It was a consensus: Wichita State will be a contender to make a run in March.
"There's no doubt in my mind that this is a top-10 team when healthy," Parrish said. "They have the track record of success, they have everyone coming back, and they have one heck of a coach. I think Gregg is a Hall of Fame-caliber coach. You combine all of that and no question they are one of the best teams in the country."