As he considered the Missouri Valley Conference in mid-January, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall discussed those teams in the league. Every year, there were maybe a half-dozen of those teams, the imperfect but dangerous clubs capable of taking down any opponent that might come in drowsy or underprepared or both.
This year, Marshall felt, less than a handful of those teams existed. But, undoubtedly, Indiana State was one of them.
“You sleep on them,” the Shockers’ unfiltered coach said, “they’re gonna beat your ass.”
Wichita State was nowhere near drifting off Wednesday, and this was precisely the reason it emerged from the Hulman Center at 24-0 and with an exponentially increasing chance to end the regular season unblemished. A 65-58 victory at Indiana State was a predictable grind. The Sycamores were, and are, probably the second-best team in the Valley and have combustible, unflinching veterans across the roster. It was never going to come easy. That the Shockers acted as such underscored why they might be even better prepared for a Final Four run than the team that made one a year ago.
Distilling the win to its essence: Wichita State was both the more urgent and more comfortable team, while toiling in as unfriendly a setting as it will see from here on. The Shockers controlled the opening minutes of each half. They were aggressive. They played like the team with nothing to lose. They basically played like the home team, in a way, which effectively siphoned the juice from Indiana State and robbed the Sycamores of their primary intangible advantage.
Wichita State opened the game on an 11-3 burst. By the end of the first half, Indiana State’s Manny Arop was skipping down the court and popping his jersey and beaming at a frenzied crowd. Only an official review that detected a fraction of Arop’s right toe on the three-point line prevented a tie game at intermission, though an Arop up-and-under provided an Indiana State lead shortly after the break.
And, in almost a blink, Wichita State bloodlessly executed a 14-4 run to quell it all. The Shockers’ detractors must consider this, that they almost arrogantly claimed a fraction of the game perfectly suited to the Sycamores. Momentum and a frothing multitude at the Hulman Center were on their side. And Wichita State planted a flag and held on for dear life from there.
The Shockers would do what they needed to do to win, while the Sycamores swooned in the precise ways that are fatal to any upset hopes. Dawon Cummings missed a fairly wide open putback layup with six and a half minutes left that might have cut the deficit to two, and that turned into a Cleanthony Early score and a six-point Wichita State lead at the other end. Indiana State missed seven free throws all night, but six of the misses arrived in the final 4:41 of the game. Down just two out of a timeout with 1:22 left, Indiana State couldn’t get a score and then got caught in a defensive mix-up, with Early left alone and scissoring into the lane for a three-point play with 63 seconds to go.
Collectively, those miscues are doom, sheer doom. Wichita State hardly executed perfect offense down the stretch but it didn’t self-immolate either, and some of the hardest work had been done just after halftime anyway.
Now it is difficult to believe anything or anyone stands firmly between the Shockers and an undefeated regular season.
Its four remaining road games are against teams with sub-.500 league records, beginning with injury-riddled Northern Iowa and followed by trips to Evansville, Loyola and Bradley – all residents in the bottom half of the Valley. A March 1 home finale against Missouri State could be tricky, if only because Missouri State had the Shockers dead to rights on Jan. 11 with a 19-point second half lead. But Marshall’s master stroke this season has been getting a team no one can beat to play as if it has something to prove, to keep its edges serrated and its focus honed. On Wednesday, with most everyone anticipating that another unbeaten might fall, Wichita State looked perfectly comfortable. That might not change all year.