It’s one thing to enter a season with tremendous expectations, and another altogether to live up to the type of lofty ideal which fans have come to expect from the Wichita State Shockers. In years past, the road has been in some ways less rocky, but despite injury, youth and misfortune, the Shockers have positioned themselves once again to dominate their league and advance in the NCAA Tournament.
To follow through on all the expectations, though, Gregg Marshall’s team must navigate a dangerous patch on the schedule and finish their regular season on a high note. Riding high on an 11-game win streak, Wichita State has the momentum and confidence to continue dominating the opposition. You can bet, however, that the churning quartet of teams tied for 2nd and tied for 4th place in the Missouri Valley Conference are keen to put a blemish or two on the Shockers’ resume.
Evansville would have seemed to be the leading candidate to take down Wichita State; the Aces played WSU to a tight 67-64 decision at Koch Arena earlier this month. Eighth-year coach Marty Simmons may have his best roster at Evansville, with stud combo guard DJ Balentine and outstanding four-year Lithuanian import Egidijus Mockevicius at the pivot. And yet, when Wichita State traveled to the Ford Center this past Sunday, it was hardly a contest. Evansville trailed nearly the entire game on the home court which had seen them win 15 straight games. Really, only the Aces’ 29 free throws made (on 38 attempts) kept the game from becoming a complete rout. After having been shut down in Koch Arena, Mockevicius led with 12 made freebies as part of his strong 16/11 double-double.
Fittingly, Shockers superstar Fred VanVleet did his star counterpart one better: VanVleet sank a perfect 15/15 free throws en route to a career-high 32 points. Oh, and VanVleet currently ranks 4th in all of college basketball with a 41% assist rate. The Shockers are 15-2 with their star point guard in the lineup. Take that, Cousy Award Committee.
“In a weird kind of way, I’m appreciative of them leaving him off. I know there will be hell to pay with the rest of the games we have this season.” – Gregg Marshall
The only way for Evansville to get another shot at the Shockers would be to meet them in the MVC tourney, so it falls to a host of other inconsistent challengers to take down #1. Southern Illinois is enjoying a solid season, yet enters Wednesday’s tilt at Koch Arena reeling a bit. Coming off consecutive losses against Evansville and Northern Iowa, it’s possible that Wichita State is poised to deliver the knockout blow which may eliminate the Salukis from MVC contention. The Shockers went into Carbondale and leveled Southern Illinois by a 83-58 margin early in the conference slate, and it’s a tremendous task for any visitor to take down the Shockers at home. After all, Wichita State is riding what is now officially the nation’s longest home-court win streak. The Salukis will be hungry to avenge the drubbing they received back in January, and they are led by a light-it-up scoring guard in Anthony Beane. And yet, it’s hard to see the Shockers failing to pick up home win #43 at Koch Arena on Wednesday. With a win against SIU, Gregg Marshall will also beat Ralph Miller’s long standing record of 220 wins as Wichita State’s head coach.
Indiana State and Illinois State have both had their moments at times this year. The Sycamores feature a high-scoring guard tandem in Brenton Scott and Devonte Brown, yet lack much of a post presence offensively. Indiana State has experienced scoring droughts and overall the Sycamores are shooting under 41% from the field this season as a team, and that ranks just 310th nationally. Somewhat amazingly, the team with which Indiana State shares 4th place currently – Illinois State – also occupies the 310 spot (40.8%) nationally in overall shooting. Illinois State is the more balanced squad between those two, however, and is led by scoring guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and versatile forward MiKyle McIntosh. The Redbirds roll out nine players who average at least 14 minutes per game, though, and that depth could test the Shockers. And yet, Wichita State is experiencing such success recently because of their own outstanding depth – depth which was tested and improved when injuries ravaged Marshall’s lineup during most of November.
Missouri State sits at 6th in the league, boast wins over Northern Iowa and most recently Illinois State, but the Bears also own a 9-13 overall record this season and have arguably the toughest remaining schedule in league play: the team must still travel to Evansville, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and finally Southern Illinois in their final game of the season.
Which brings us to potentially the Shockers’ most intimidating challenger. It would sound strange to bestow that mantle upon Northern Iowa, given that the Panthers are in 7th place in the Valley and have lost seven of their past 11 games. However, earlier this season the Panthers took down #1 North Carolina as well as #5 Iowa State. Some may say Northern Iowa is a performance art piece representing the 2015-16 college basketball season as a whole, but the Panthers are undoubtedly dangerous. The biggest reason they have failed to show consistency this season is that the Panthers are extremely reliant upon their perimeter shooting. UNI is a guard-heavy team, and while star point guard Wes Washpun leads a quality quartet of outside scorers, the Panthers aren’t going to sustain any type of real success unless they get legitimate contributions up front. That happened this past Sunday, as young center Bennett Koch went for a career-high 22 and 11 boards in a victory against Southern Illinois. If Koch is ready to become an every-game force, it could make the Panthers into a different team. And yet, if UNI is to entertain hopes of knocking off Wichita State at Koch Arena, they will have to do so by shooting the lights out from three point land. In their two Top 5 wins, the Panthers have shot a combined 24 of 52 – a blistering 46.2% – from deep, and that type of performance is hard for any opponent to overcome. In those two games, Washpun has scored 49 points while handing out 19 assists.
Certainly, Northern Iowa poses a challenge for the Shockers. And yet, Wichita State went into Cedar Falls and stifled the Panthers in a dominant 74-55 win earlier this season. In that game, UNI made only 8 of 24 triples and matched that mark by making just 33% from the field overall. Washpun managed 14 points with 7 helpers and 7 boards, but he shot just 4/13 from the floor. VanVleet and his fellow star Ron Baker will get further experience against another elite guard when the Panthers come to town, and if they’re able to do a number on UNI’s leader once again it will help to once again snuff out the Panther’s potentially explosive 3pt barrage.
Wichita State has the proven star power, depth, scoring versatility and defensive efficiency to finish an undefeated conference slate. Since MVC play began, Shaq Morris has made strides. The team’s starter up front has been efficient, making 55% of his shots and averaging 7.5 points, 3.8 boards and 0.9 blocks in MVC play. While Morris still struggles with foul trouble, the healthy return of Anton Grady gives Marshall a great 1-2 punch at the pivot. Depending on matchups in March, those two big men could end up having a large say in how far the Shockers can advance this year. The backcourt has been improved greatly by Conner Frankamp’s presence off the bench. The talented young guard is averaging 7 points per game and has helped to stretch opposing defenses. And Frankamp’s incredible stretch of efficient ball-handling continues: in 14 games and 247 minutes played this season, the former 4-star prospect has committed just three turnovers.
The stretch run is going to reveal quite a bit about each of the teams still in contention for the top seeds in this year’s Missouri Valley tourney. Wichita State has a perfect streak going; Evansville has missed its opportunity to dethrone the Shockers but they still want to finish as a strong #2 in what will be Balentine and Mockevicius’s final seasons. Southern Illinois is looking to prove that their strong start to the year was no fluke, and Northern Iowa wants to show the world that they’re much more than simply a two-hit wonder. Arch Madness is always entertaining and this season will be no different.
For Wichita State, however, another Missouri Valley title would be only the first of many goals. It hasn’t been easy so far, though the Shockers have often made it appear so. Gregg Marshall’s team is clearly the league’s best – at this point, everyone else can only be second place. And with continued consistency and the outstanding depth which was fire-forged in November, Marshall’s team is looking to put an exclamation point on their conference season. The month of February will be Wichita State’s tuneup for the postseason, and the next challenge comes tonight.
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