Wichita State’s Bid For Perfection Runs Into a Valley Scoring StarPosted by Greg Mitchell on February 15th, 2014
There’s been only one story to (consistently) grab national headlines out of the Missouri Valley this season, and it’s been a big one. You may have heard that Wichita State (currently 26-0) is trying to wrap up the first undefeated regular season since St. Joseph’s ran the table back in 2003-04. So it’s understandable that any other Valley storylines haven’t had a chance to reach national consciousness, short of Barry Hinson wanting his wife to play power forward for his team. But the Shockers’ bid for perfection runs into a Valley storyline on Saturday that needs an additional spotlight: Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, one of the best scorers you’ve probably never heard of.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you haven’t. The Purple Aces (11-14, 4-9 MVC) are near the bottom of the Valley and nowhere near any kind of postseason bid. You may, however, be hearing Balentine’s name more often over the next few years. Someone will need to assume Billy Baron’s role as the chic, mid-major scoring star, and it could very well be the Evansville sophomore. Balentine is sixth in the country in points per game (23.6) and is coming off a 38-point performance against Illinois State on Wednesday night. He dropped 43 on Northern Iowa earlier this season, and hasn’t wilted against the upper echelon of the Valley, scoring 23 against Indiana State and 26 in his first game against the Shockers. There’s no question the sophomore gets a more-than-healthy heaping of shots (15 per game), but his offensive game is dangerous because of its balance. Balentine gets to the line over eight times per game and is shooting 86 percent once he gets there. He’s also beaten teams from deep, taking 35.3 percent of his shots from three and knocking down over 40 percent of those. He’s also got the seventh best assist rate in the Valley, despite being the definition of a high-volume shooter.
Teams have been able to limit Balentine when they keep him off the line. Missouri State held him to 11 points in part by staying disciplined and only allowing him three foul shots. That’s a far cry from the 25 free throw attempts he managed to get against Illinois State. It hasn’t been his absolute kryptonite though, since the Shockers held him to just two foul attempts in their game in Wichita, and he put up 26 points nonetheless. Still, limiting his easy opportunities is a start and Wichita State – as a part of their overall great defense – has done a good job not fouling this season (opponents score only 20.6 percent of their points against the Shockers at the line). It’ll also be interesting to see how Gregg Marshall chooses to guard Balentine. Tekele Cotton likely gets the primary assignment in man-to-man defense, but the more rangy Ron Baker could be used too.
Balentine probably won’t take down the Shockers’ perfect season by himself. But this game will be a test for Wichita State, perhaps more so than the Purple Aces’ 4-9 conference record suggests. Evansville wasn’t intimidated in Koch Arena, keeping the game relatively even until there was about a minute left in the first half. The Shockers also had one of their worst defensive showings in conference play in that game, giving up 0.992 points per possession. Then again, that a “bad” defensive night means keeping the other team under a point per possession illustrates how good they’ve been defensively. But Balentine has emerged as one the most productive and balanced scorers in the country, and does have it in him to go 40-plus point bonkers. You never know what can happen with a guy like that suiting up against you.