On March 2, 2013, Wichita State and Creighton played a game initially notable for the fact that it would be the Jays’ final regular season game in the Missouri Valley Conference. Somewhere in the midst of Creighton rolling to a 12-point victory in Omaha, the contest became less about the Valley swan song and more about Doug McDermott, who poured in 41 points on 15-of-18 field goal shooting. At the time, it appeared to be a day to quickly forget for Gregg Marshall’s Shockers, and forget they did: Wichita State was playing in the Final Four just five weeks later. Fast-forward from that point more than 20 months, though, and that regular season finale has developed a new reason for recall – it’s the last regular season game Wichita State has lost. The Shockers will be sporting a 31-game regular season winning streak when they take to the Roundhouse floor tonight, where New Mexico State will be the latest opponent to have a crack at snapping the streak. Gregg Marshall’s team will face challenges this season that never afflicted last year’s team, but it returns a nucleus capable of maintaining an established lofty standard. So we ask: How good can these Shockers be, and exactly when will the regular season streak end?
Wichita State will miss Cleanthony Early. List as many reasons as you want for the magical run of a season ago – Gregg Marshall’s coaching; utterly committed team defense; grinding offensive execution – but the Shockers also had the luxury of Early, a player with the athletic tools to dominate any game if needed. In 2013, Early’s 39-point explosion against Southern Illinois saved the Shockers from a near-upset at home. Last year at Indiana State, he scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half to stave off the Shockers’ primary Valley challenger. And in that lone, season-ending loss of 2014, it was Early who matched Kentucky’s NBA talent shot-for-shot down the stretch, keeping the Shockers afloat. The current New York Knicks forward may not have been the most consistent Shocker during his two years in Wichita, but his athleticism and scoring ability made him a dynamic dimension that few college basketball teams – power conference or not – could lay claim to. Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton will deservedly reel in plenty of acclaim this season, but for the myriad talents of that trio, none possess the game-breaking abilities of Early. This team will need to find its way without a take-over scorer.