Wichita State Might Have the Necessary Tools to Reach PerfectionPosted by Greg Mitchell on January 17th, 2014
“Play angry” became Wichita State’s motto on its fantastic run to last year’s Final Four. The motto has stuck this year and been a part of the longest winning streak and best start in school history. But last Saturday night the Shockers’ motto was more “play with fire” than anything else, as they survived an 18-point halftime deficit and raucous road atmosphere against Missouri State to stay unbeaten. Playing with fire is exactly what Wichita State will continue to do as the team attempts to post the first undefeated regular season since St. Joseph’s turned the trick in 2003-04. Wichita State passed its next test with a dominant home win over Bradley on Tuesday night, but not every game will be in the friendly confines of Koch Arena and against a team that came in having lost nine of 10. It’s not that the Shockers aren’t good enough to pull off a perfect regular season, but two axioms of the often wacky and unpredictable world of college basketball are: a) that it’s hard as hell to play on the road, and b) it sure isn’t easy to win them all. Last Saturday’s win in Springfield illustrated why a perfect season, even in a down conference, is so hard to achieve; but it also showed that Gregg Marshall’s Shockers could just have what it takes to make it happen.
The recipe for the upset was in full swing against Wichita State last Saturday: a home team red-hot from the three-point line in front of a rabid crowd. The undefeated season talk had already slowly begun to gain steam, but this was the type of game that many predicted would prevent it from happening. Wichita State will, after all, be the the Super Bowl game for every Missouri Valley team this season. Yet the perfect record was still alive when the Shockers tipped off against Bradley, and in battling back against Missouri State, they showed that even if they run into a similar situation against Indiana State in Terre Haute or Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls (or anywhere else, for that matter), they have shown the ability to keep sneaking out road wins.
One reason for this is that you can add “play with patience” or “play smart” to the growing list of Wichita State mottos. The Shockers have shown the important ability to still produce points even when their shots aren’t falling. Wichita State shot an unsightly 35.2 percent against Missouri State, and followed it up with a 39.6 percent performance against Bradley. But in both games the Shockers overcame their cold-shooting by getting to the line a combined 69 times. On the season, they rank 29th in the country in free throw makes per game (29.0), and starting guards Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton take 40 percent or more of their shots at the rim. Cleanthony Early leads the team in free throws attempts and is shooting 82 percent there on the season, a great percentage for a big man. This type of sustainable stopped-clock offense will allow the Shockers to keep riding out the inevitable poor shooting nights.
And of course there are Wichita’s intangibles, which by their very nature are so easy to define. This group of players seems to “get it” emotionally. Intensity and pressure ratchets up once conference play starts, and the Shockers have been able to avoid early letdowns and get off to sizable first half leads in four of their five Valley games (17 points at SIU, eight vs. NIU, 13 vs. ISU, 17 vs. Bradley). You might argue that this suggests they’ve been focused in the games where they were heavily favored. Against Missouri State, however, they found themselves facing their first major challenge; still, the Shockers found a way to dig out of that hole, in large part because the often-intense Marshall knew the right emotional buttons to push. “He didn’t come in [at halftime] cussing and fussing and blasting everybody,” Nick Wiggins said. “He just came in with a plan. And it worked.”
The plan may keep working, especially if the Shockers show the kind of poise they did in overcoming the classic upset special template. Teams usually aren’t going to shoot 65 percent from three for an entire game as Missouri State did in the first half. But, like the Bears showed last Saturday night, even a brief blitz of threes can put an elite team in a big hole. Wichita State’s patience in continuing to attack the basket and play solid defense allowed them to dig out. The target on the Shockers’ back will only get bigger and brighter as they navigate their way through the Valley this season, and, in all likelihood, they won’t end up perfect. But they take care of the basketball, rebound at an elite level, and find ways to score when their shots aren’t falling. Maybe it isn’t wise to bet against them.
What’s next for the Shockers: A nationally-televised home game Saturday against Missouri Valley co-leader Indiana State (14-3, 5-0). The Sycamores will be the best team (Kenpom #56) to visit Koch Arena the rest of the season, and have the offensive firepower to put a scare into the Shockers (30th in the country in effective field goal percentage). They also own quality wins at Notre Dame and against Belmont. Players to watch for Indiana State are senior point guard Jake Odum, a stat-sheet stuffer who takes great care of the ball (5.2 APG/1.9 TOPG) and talented Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop (60.4% TS).