ST. LOUIS >> Wichita State is close to an NCAA tournament lock heading into this week's Missouri Valley tourney. The rest of the league's teams come to St. Louis realizing they must run the table.
"Nine teams understand they have to win the thing to get a bid," conference commissioner Doug Elgin said Wednesday. "That's the cruel truth. The reality is you don't see teams with RPIs in the 80s and 90s in the NCAAs."
That's not to say a handful of schools, given the chance, couldn't make an impact at the dance.
The Valley is ranked just 12th in strength of schedule, working against multiple bids without a tournament upset. Still, it's deep enough that No. 4 seed Northern Iowa is perhaps the most dangerous challenger to the Shockers' mini-dynasty of four regular season titles in five years.
The Panthers (19-12) have a so-so 94 RPI. But they are 3-0 against the Top 25, including a victory over then-top ranked North Carolina. Since coming out of a midseason funk, they've won nine of 10, including snapping Wichita State's 43-game home court winning streak last month.
"Certainly, they're a team that's lying in the weeds," Elgin said.
In the quarterfinals on Friday, they'll face Southern Illinois, which earned one of the bigger turnaround stories in the nation. A year after losing 21 games, the Salukis are 22-9 and led by all-conference guard Anthony Beane. He's expected back for the tournament after sustaining a concussion.
"I think we're playing the hottest team in the conference," Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. "They always play their best at the end of the year."
No. 2 seed Evansville has the nation's top active career scoring leader in D.J. Balentine, who is averaging 20.7 points this season. Teammate Egidijus Mockevicius leads the nation in rebounding (14.0) and double-doubles (26). Balentine will finish his career fourth in Valley history in scoring, trailing only Hersey Hawkins, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird.
No. 3 seed Illinois State (18-13) is another improved team with balanced scoring. It also boasts its highest seed in six years.
Everybody is chasing Wichita State (23-7), which has two all-conference guards three years running. Fred VanVleet was selected Larry Bird conference player of the year for the second time, and Ron Baker is an all-around threat also picked among the conference's top defenders.
The Shockers are two victories shy of averaging 30 wins the last four seasons, including an undefeated regular season and the Valley's first Final Four appearance since Bird led Indiana State in 1979.
"It's been an epic run," Elgin said. "It is remarkable what they've accomplished."
Wichita State enters the tournament just out of the top 25, owing to early season stumbles when VanVleet was sidelined with a hamstring injury. The champions are among the top defensive teams in the nation and have been nearly unbeatable with VanVleet healthy.
VanVleet is among just three players in conference history with 600 assists and 200 steals. Markis McDuffie was named conference freshman of the year and senior transfer forward Anton Grady was chosen for the all-newcomer team. Both are 6-foot-8 players.
The Shockers were 16-2 in the conference and have won five in a row by 30, 31, 33, 22 and 16 points since the loss at home to Northern Iowa.
"They've been really easy to coach," coach Gregg Marshall said. "They're gifted and talented and they've listened and learned."
The tournament is always a big draw at the downtown Scottrade Center and especially fills a void this year with Illinois, Missouri and Saint Louis all struggling and the St. Louis Rams moving back to Los Angeles. Wichita State and Southern Illinois draw well on the road.
"With the number of programs contending, it has clearly juiced our attendance," Elgin said. "It just makes for a very, very interesting weekend."