Wichita State built on the momentum gained from a trip to the Final Four last year, getting out to a 21-0 start this season. However, in part because they play in the too-lightly regarded Missouri Valley Conference, people question whether this team has the credentials to merit consideration for a No. 1 seed.
We have to consider two possibilities: finishing undefeated (33-0) or taking a loss along the way.
If Wichita State finishes the regular season without a loss, the case for them as a No. 1 seed is a virtual slam dunk. We can't say that because of precedent. The Shockers would have done something that hadn't been done in 23 years. UNLV in 1991 was the last team to finish the regular season undefeated. Nobody would have ever finished with as many as 33 wins. UNLV was a 1-seed, but we have no data to compare with Wichita State. Simply out of respect for that accomplishment, the Shockers deserve a top seed.
Wichita State's current strength of schedule is 78 and projects to be in that neighborhood at the end of the season. The Shockers' non-conference SOS ranks 60th, and again, not much change is expected. They have a win over possible tournament team Tennessee and a victory at Saint Louis, a current Top 25 team. They should have roughly 10 top-100 RPI wins. Again, getting through all that without a loss certainly merits a top seed.
At the same time, it's pretty clear that more than one loss would knock the Shockers off the top line. Let's look at the best case scenario, a loss at Indiana State on February 5th. The Sycamores are the next highest rated team in the MVC (currently No. 45). That loss would likely be a top 50 loss, although that would obviously depend on how ISU finishes. Coincidentally, ISU in 1979, along with UNLV in 1991, are the only two teams ever to start their seasons with at least 33 wins.
Fortunately, we do have some precedent with one-loss teams. Many would likely try to compare the Shockers to UMass from 1996 (31-1 entering the tournament) or Saint Joseph's from 2004 (27-1 entering the tournament), but those don't really work. Both of those teams finished in the top 3 of the RPI and had top 5 non-conference schedules. They also played many more top 100 teams than Wichita State will. A better comparison might be Stanford from 2004, which finished 29-1 and a No. 1 seed. The Cardinal finished with only four top-50 wins and was 11-1 vs the top 100 in what was a down year for the Pac-10. Most of the talk that year was about whether Saint Joe's should have been a top seed, but Stanford's profile was clearly weaker. The Cardinal were eventually bounced by Alabama in the Round of 32.
Something to consider about seeding is that it is relative. Stanford's résumé was good enough in 2004 to be a top seed, but it might not have been in other years. It depends on the competition. This year's bracket looks like it could be pretty competitive at the top, which means that Wichita State might not be able to reach the top line with even just one loss.
The committee isn't supposed to consider previous years, so having played in last year's Final Four won't help them, except in the court of public opinion.
Whether the Shockers end up undefeated or with one loss, whether they are seeded as a No. 1 or not, they're going to be a team to reckon with once the tournament starts.