Wichita State waited 34 years in between ranked vs. ranked home games as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Those marquee games, games that lift the Shockers into the national spotlight and help NCAA Tournament resumes, are coming with more frequency these days.
On Thursday, the Shockers enjoy that scenario for the second time in three seasons as a member of the American Athletic Conference. No. 21 Memphis visits No. 23 Wichita State (6 p.m., ESPN2) in an early highlight of the American Athletic Conference schedule and a historical highlight at the arena.
“It’s big boy basketball in early January,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s a meaningful game. I think it’s going to be really, really entertaining.”
This is the type of exposure, setting and matchup Wichita State wanted when it joined the AAC in 2017 after 72 years as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Those things – schedule, conference, TV matchups – matter to recruits.
High-profile matchups and a raucous Koch Arena crowd will help reestablish Wichita State after a season out of the spotlight. The Koch Arena crowd is a major selling point and Thursday’s game offers the opportunity for a two-hour commercial on the atmosphere at Shocker games.
“It’s going to be electric,” Marshall said.
Wichita State junior Trey Wade, a transfer from South Plains (Texas) College, looked at schools that would highlight his skills against strong opponents. He wanted a program with a strong coaching staff and a winning tradition that people – including professional scouts – pay attention to and hold in high regard.
“Knowing the conference and high-level competition, that’s definitely something you look for when going to a school,” Wade said. “Guys like (Memphis forward Precious Achiuwa), a future lottery pick, it’s an opportunity. How I match up. Anybody could be watching.”
The Shockers defeated Mississippi on Saturday to start a five-game stretch that includes Memphis, UConn, Temple and Houston.
“I want to compete against the best, play elite teams,” freshman guard Tyson Etienne said. “Wichita State is in the American Conference and that’s a very elite conference. We’re very young as a conference, as a whole, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
The American Athletic Conference saw the potential for an attractive matchup when it set the schedule in the summer. Memphis’ much-hyped recruits and Wichita State’s fearsome home court earned the game the conference’s standalone Thursday spot on ESPN2. Tigers coach Penny Hardaway adds star power. Wichita State’s reputation is strong, as its 13 appearances on ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU during conference play shows.
“Memphis has a great tradition, a proud program and a famous coach,” Marshall said. “He’s got some players that’ll be famous real soon too. We’ve got pros too. That’s why you join this league. That’s why the American Athletic Conference makes sense for us.”
The Shockers didn’t appear in the rankings in 2018-19. In their debut American season, the 11th-ranked Shockers played No. 10 Cincinnati at home. They also played at Cincinnati and against Houston in the conference tournament with both teams in the rankings.
Three seasons earlier, No. 11 Wichita State met No. 10 Northern Iowa in an MVC showdown with ESPN Game Day in town on Feb. 28, 2015.
— Go Shockers (@GoShockers) January 6, 2020
That game ended a long ranked-ranked drought, created by Wichita State’s absence from the rankings from 1984 until 2006. The MVC brought in few ranked teams when the Shockers joined the rankings frequently over the past decade.
On Dec. 12, 1981, the Shockers, ranked fourth played host to No. 9 UAB. Before Thursday, there were a mere five previous ranked-ranked games at Koch Arena, which opened in 1955 as the WU Field House was later named Levitt Arena. The first came in 1960, when top-ranked Ohio State defeated No. 16 Wichita State 93-82.
Wichita State built the arena in 1955 with those games in mind as a member of the powerful MVC. While there have been plenty of big ones, membership in the American is a welcomed boost on the national stage.