Wichita State added a season-defining win to its NCAA Tournament profile with a 68-63 win against No. 6 Houston on Thursday night.
The Shockers entered the game as one of Jerry Palm’s “Last Four Out” in his most recent Bracketology, but that projection is in flux thanks to the best possible win on Wichita State’s schedule. It’s a season in the American Athletic Conference that has been notable for both Houston’s excellence and the apparent chasm between the Cougars and everyone else, but the Shockers made the most of their one regular season meeting with the league’s frontrunners and actually pull into first place in the league standings based on winning percentage.
“Wichita State got the big win it needed to get the committee’s attention and bolstered its hopes for an at-large bid should the Shockers need one,” CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm said Thursday night. “They are in the bracket for now as the automatic qualifier for the AAC by virtue of taking over first place in the conference. They still have little margin for error in the pursuit of an at-large bid, but there are still some helpful games ahead.”
Star guard Tyson Etienne continued his recent run of success with a team-high 16 points and was matched by his backcourt mate Alterique Gilbert with 16 on 6-for-11 shooting with three 3-pointers. Houston is one of the best defensive teams in the country, but the Cougars saw a repeat of their earlier loss to East Carolina as Wichita State got hot from outside the arc and finished the game shooting 45.5% (10-for-22) on 3-point attempts.
Even with Wichita State’s hot shooting and some less than ideal offense, Houston had a chance to win the game late. After a Quentin Grimes trey cut the lead to 64-63 with 19 seconds left, Etienne missed the front end of a one-and-one and the Cougars got the rebound. Then, with a go-ahead and potential game-winning possession at hand, Wichita State guard Dexter Dennis jumped a cross-court pass like a defensive back and started charging to the rim. Justin Gorham chased Dennis down and committed a hard foul that resulted in two shots and the ball for the Shockers, who were then able to close out the program’s first win over a top-six opponent since 1967 at the free throw line.
For Wichita State to even be in this position at this point of the season is a credit to interim coach Isaac Brown and a staff that has stuck with its players through the investigation and eventual resignation of Gregg Marshall. The American Athletic Conference media poll was released on Oct. 28, after the allegations of abuse first came to light but before Marshall’s resignation, and it revealed the low expectations for a team enduring a scandal in the midst of a pandemic. Wichita State was picked to finish No. 7 in the 11-team league, and now it’s coming down the stretch of the regular season with a 9-2 record in conference play and holding onto first place in the standings thanks to a head-to-head win against the preseason AAC favorite.
The success that Wichita State has already experienced is worth making Brown a serious candidate for the full-time job, but making the NCAA Tournament only strengthens his argument as the right pick to guide the program moving forward. Capitalizing on this win and getting into the field of 68 will mean walking a tight rope with a head-to-head against SMU (home and away) and two straight road games against Tulane and Temple to close the regular season. There’s nothing left on the schedule that can help Wichita State as much as it did with Thursday night’s win, but plenty of potential pitfalls if it gets lost in the victory and ignores the task at hand.