ST. LOUIS -- If this was Wichita State’s last Missouri Valley Conference tournament game, well, that’s the point. No one was saying it wasn’t.
“Good question,” one Wichita State source amid the postgame celebration on the floor following . “I don’t know.”
No one knows, including coach Gregg Marshall, who didn’t exactly poo-poo the idea of the Shockers leaving the Valley.
“That’s above my pay grade,” he said. “Ask my president.”
We basically already have John Bardo’s answer. He’s the -- shall we say -- athletically aggressive Wichita State CEO who is pushing the school toward membership in the American Athletic Conference.
CBS Sports reported Friday that Wichita State is. And why not? Both the American and the Shockers could find mutual benefit.
So if the process heats up and speeds up, the greatest thing to happen to the Missouri Valley this decade could be gone.
The Shockers are in a league they are starting to carry on their back. The question is, are they getting sore? The last time the Valley had more than two teams in was 2006. The Shockers have accounted for six of the league’s last 10 NCAA entries.
Sunday’s clinching of the auto-bid, then, was the worst possible outcome for the venerable Valley. The reason this tournament is so attractive is also its greatest curse.
It is an early showcase for one of the best mid-major leagues in the country. But it comes so early -- a week before Selection Sunday -- that the bubble teams have to wallow in their own angst.
“It’s stressful as hell,” said Marshall, whose team has been an at-large selection four of the last six seasons.
Illinois State and its No. 26 RPI should be stressing. Despite being the league’s No. 1 seed and co-champ, its best win came almost two months ago against Wichita State. That 76-62 decision on Jan. 14 represented half its wins over the top 100.
The Redbirds laid the largest of eggs six weeks before Easter, shooting less than 30 percent. Ask what this next week would be like, Illinois State coach Dan Muller said, “I don’t know. Hopefully they’ll look at the whole body of work.”
“And he doesn’t have the cache, as you mention, as we do,” Marshall said.
According to one former NCAA selection committee member, mid-majors like Gonzaga and Wichita State are at the point their brands have established them enough “they have to play themselves out” at the beginning of the season.
“That’s awesome to hear. I appreciate you sharing that with me,” Marshall said as he walked from his postgame press conference.
In essence, at this point in Wichita State history, it’s easier to slot the Shockers in as an at-large than -- say -- the team they beat on Sunday.
“That’s true. There’s no doubt about it,” said Marshall, who was not specifically speaking about Illinois State. “People can say that brand doesn’t matter. At the same time we’re all human. You can’t erase that from their memories.”
If the charm of the Valley tournament is that it annually reeks of desperation, Sunday sort of smelled. Break down the bodies of work and the best chance of the league getting two teams in the NCAA Tournament was an Illinois State win.
If for no other reason than Wichita State is more well known than the Redbirds. Since 2012, this makes it six consecutive NCAA Tournaments, a Final Four and an undefeated regular season for the Shockers.
Muller suggested this group is better than the Shockers of three years ago that started 35-0.
“They’ve been stockpiling talent for years,” said Muller, a former Kevin Stallings assistant at Vanderbilt. “Clearly this is the best offensive team they’ve had. It might be the best defense. I said it the other day. This might be the best team they’ve had.”
So the question lingers. Has Wichita State outgrown the 110-year old Valley? If not, how soon until Marshall outgrows Wichita State?
Marshall seemed to leave the door open again when asked about the. The news of Kim Anderson leaving made its way through Scottrade Center as Wichita State was getting out to a 33-25 halftime lead.
“When you have opportunities, if you want to listen -- and we do -- then you see how that goes,” Marshall said when asked about the Missouri job. “Right now we’re in a great place.”
Or something close to it. Marshall lost five seniors this season, including two future NBA players (Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet) from a team that won at least two NCAA Tournament games for the third time in four years.
On Sunday, Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp scored a career-high 19 points in becoming the tournament’s most outstanding player. The Redbirds shot only 25 percent in the second half and had as many technicals as they did 3-pointers (both three).
“All we can do is just wait and pray,” Redbirds leading scorer Deontae Hawkins said.
A disappointing next Sunday would mark Illinois State’s 20th consecutive season out the Big Dance.
You should know the Shockers by now. All arms and legs and bulk and unwavering under Marshall. Six players were on the floor for at least 20 minutes.
This season Marshall is doing it with only two seniors, neither of which play much. Only once in that 15-game winning streak has the opposition been within 15 points.
You should know the Shockers by now. They pretty much are the Valley. But is that enough?