Creighton and Wichita State on a Collision Path in the MVC Tourney

Posted by dnspewak on March 9th, 2013

Danny Spewak (@dspewak) is an RTC Correspondent. He’ll cover the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis through Sunday. 

Gregg Marshall loves Gatorade. A lot. During the final minute of Friday’s Missouri Valley Conference quarterfinal victory over Missouri State, the Wichita State head coach downed his second whole bottle of the game with a big, frat party-like chug and then immediately received a third bottle from a manager. That’s a lot of sugar, but you can’t mess with routine. Marshall always carefully places a bottle of Gatorade – with the label peeled off, of course — and a white cup on top of the scorer’s table and then pours the liquid into the cup right before tip-off. Always. No exceptions. His stress level appears to determine how much Gatorade he drinks on a given night.


Marshall and Wichita State Move Into the MVC Semis

On Friday, that stress level seemed through the roof— from an outsider’s perspective, at least. It’s impossible to know what actually went through Marshall’s head during his team’s 69-59 victory over the seventh-seeded Bears, but this game seemed like the very definition of a “trap game.” Wichita State, the second seed in Arch Madness after losing to Creighton on the final day of the regular season, simply needed to win. It could win ugly. It could win pretty. It could win any way it wanted, but most self-proclaimed bracketologists had the Shockers somewhere in the vicinity of the bubble. Beating Missouri State didn’t change that, but a loss in the quarterfinals might have sounded the alert system in the National Invitational Tournament offices. Injuries aside – and there have been a lot of them this year for Marshall – the Shockers have simply lost too many bad games already. It’s not easy to win on the road in an underrated league like the Valley, but a loss at Southern Illinois and a sweep at the hands of a decent-but-not-elite Evansville team is indefensible.

So Wichita State took care of business to live to see another day in St. Louis and solidify what looks like a solid enough at-large resume. Carl Hall was a monster, and the Shockers did their thing on the glass, which is why they’re one of the top rebounding teams in America. Marshall said the return of Ron Baker, who has missed most of the season with an injury, is a key storyline often ignored by the national media, which has focused only on Hall’s injury. “They’ve been saying that we’ve been fully healthy now since we got Carl back, and we still have our starting two guard and our starting small forward on the sidelines,” Marshall said. “We haven’t been healthy since the eighth game of the season. And I think now, people see what Ron Baker is capable of doing. He’s a really good player, and he does everything fairly well, if not really good.” The Shockers didn’t play a vintage game on the offensive end, but they were just surviving on Friday. That’s why Marshall had to chug so much Gatorade to keep his sanity. Expect a few more bottles on Saturday. “It’s never easy,” Marshall said.

Greg McDermott might not need any Gatorade, but his Creighton team was also in survival mode to an extent in a 65-53 victory over Drake. The Bluejays are essentially a lock, but a mid-season swoon has also caused them to slide toward the bubble a bit. That seemed like an implausible scenario back when Creighton entered the top15 of the polls earlier this year, but five league losses changed that, namely at Drake and at home against Illinois State. In a revenge game against the Bulldogs, Doug McDermott helped his teammates overcome a poor shooting night. The All-American made just enough shots to keep the Bluejays afloat, finishing with 23 points on 8-14 from the floor and surpassing the all-time record for most points in program history. Drake’s coaches were begging their players to listen to their advice from the bench, and they seemed to have scouted every single set involving McDermott. That didn’t work, since he still got all the shots he wanted. Reserve Will Artino also played big on the inside, finishing with 14 points and grabbing several key rebounds. “One of the keys of winning a tournament like this is having people off the bench stepping up,” senior Gregory Echenique said. McDermott and Artino were enough for Creighton to pull away for a comfortable win.

Friday’s quarterfinals were a terrific example of the strength of this league. Creighton and Wichita State had to battle to advance to the semis, just as they’ve had to battle all year in the Valley. They’ve lost some of the battles, and on a national scene, they’re penalized for losing seemingly unfathomable games to teams destined for, at best, the CBI or CIT. But as returning NCAA Tournament participants, these two teams have a bright, red target on their backs in every game. They’re playing in tough road environments against coaches and players who know them backwards and forwards. They’re also playing teams like Northern Iowa, who came within a controversial foul call of taking Louisville to overtime in November, as well as, say, Indiana State, who beat Miami on a neutral floor. Bottom line is, the middling teams in the Missouri Valley are darn solid, and it’s no wonder Creighton and Wichita State didn’t cruise through the league unscathed.

But the computer numbers, good loss/bad loss balances and all the other sometimes nonsensical factors involved in the NCAA Tournament selection process don’t lie. Creighton and Wichita State may be a heck of a lot better than the other teams near the bubble, but they’re going to have to fight to prove to the world that they belong more with the elite and less near the First Four. They’re likely fine, but stranger things have happened, so fight on they will. It starts on Saturday. If both advance to Sunday’s title game, the Valley will cement itself as a two-bid league for the second season in a row. “I expect our team to be locked in and ready to do it again,” Echenique said. They better be.

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