CHICAGO -- Roughly 40 minutes after his team navigated some minor hazards to post a 22nd straight conference win on Sunday, Gregg Marshall came around the bend of a concourse at Loyola’s Gentile Center. The Wichita State coach approached the cluster of humanity near the visitor’s locker room with a grin, carrying a paper cup in one hand and a slab of white posterboard in the other. Marshall paused for a peck from his wife, Lynn, then held up the placard for all to see: You’re Not In Kansas Anymore, it read in smudged maroon lettering.
“A souvenir,” Marshall said, still smiling.
On this snowy evening, he looked like a satisfied capture-the-flag winner, or maybe a bit like a conqueror flying the other side’s colors for his personal amusement. The message on the poster was now meaningless: The rock stars of the Missouri Valley Conference once again came, saw and smothered, heading back to their home state with a 67-53 triumph. But the rough edges of that victory (the Shockers trailed at halftime), two previous non-conference losses and a rising waterline in the league all suggested a broader interpretation of the words Marshall carried with him. This version of Wichita State isn’t perfect. And should the Shockers look around, they’ll see an unfamiliar reality.
Wichita State, two seasons removed from the Final Four and one season removed from a record-setting 35-0 start, is now 14-2 and ranked No. 13 in the country. But the Shockers may not end up as the champions of their own league this season. And their imperfection happens to be ideal for a Missouri Valley Conference looking to increase its profile. Dominance by one team simply doesn’t produce the NCAA tournament bids that depth does.
“The beauty of their rise, [to the] Final Four and then 35-0, is that they really did help us turn the page after Creighton left,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said after watching the game courtside. “What we’re seeing this year, with more balance in the league, is a league that’s so competitive that there’s no guarantee they’re going to win this thing. And I think they realize that.”
Challengers like No. 23 Northern Iowa and Indiana State, off to a 4-0 start in league play, indeed lurk. But Wichita State players likely can't be convinced that failure looms as well. Watch star guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker on the floor, and they still play with startling calm, their faces rarely flinching with emotion. It’s how the Shockers can trail Bradley into the second half, as they did last Wednesday, and then finish on a 32-11 run to win. It’s how they can watch Loyola storm ahead, hitting circus-shot heaves from half-court on Sunday, and then ratchet up the defense to force three turnovers and block five shots in an 18-3 second-half run that turns the game on its head.
Still, while confident, Wichita State is not delusional: It knows this year is not last year. The depth of experience simply isn’t there; even the players ranking fifth, sixth and seventh in minutes played in 2013-14 were hardened upperclassmen. This year, that same group comprises Evan Wessel, a senior who played only 12.4 minutes per game last season, and two freshmen. “You talk about last year, I was the youngest guy that played, pretty much,” said VanVleet, now a junior. “You talk about (departed seniors Cleanthony Early) and Nick Wiggins and those guys -- those are grown men.”
Thus Marshall’s dilemma early in the season: He had a credentialed group of veterans to blend with a barge-load of newcomers – seven true or redshirt freshmen on the 16-team roster – who have “no idea what they’re doing,” as he put it Sunday. The Shockers coach called it a “tremendous divide” in experience and accomplishment, but it became as literal as figurative. For a time, he and his staff allocated more time to instructing the new guys and painstakingly establishing principles.
“Those guys have to keep up,” Marshall said. “We’re going to coach everybody the same. I think that’s better.”
The production gap between this season and last is evident everywhere, but it is glaring nowhere. Wichita State averaged 0.99 points per possession last season and is at 0.96 this year. It allowed .81 points per possession last year and is surrendering .83 this year. VanVleet has seen his offensive rating slide (134.9 to 121.1), but there he was with a 14-point, 10-assist night Sunday in which he didn’t miss a shot from the floor. It’s a little disconcerting to see the Shockers’ kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency number plunge from 12th nationally last season to 64th this year, but the defense responded by holding Loyola to 37 percent from the floor.
“As long as I’ve been coaching, that’s been something you have to have in your hip pocket,” Marshall said. “It’s the thing you can control: How hard you play, the effort you put forth on the defensive end.”
Damn near a finished product at this time a year ago, Wichita State is a work in progress. Only it hasn’t lowered expectations even a fraction.
“We’re always going to have a target on our back,” said senior guard Tekele Cotton. “We’re going to get the best from everybody and we’re going to try to give everybody our best. We’re still trying to hunt people.”
If the Shockers wind up as prey for the first time in a long while, it might be what everyone else in it league needs.
The MVC is a long way from 2006, when it sent four teams to the NCAA tournament and two (Bradley and Wichita State) reached the Sweet 16. In five of the last seven years, it has delivered just one representative to the bracket. And though this is slightly oversimplified, leagues earn more money from more bids. To gain those invites, there must be competition near the top, or at least the perception of it. “You don’t want parity [throughout] a league like ours,” Elgin said. “You want an upper division that is clearly capable of getting into an NCAA bubble discussion.”
Wichita State is undefeated again in the league, but there is some uncertainty that it will finish the season that way. Northern Iowa was No. 18 in the RPI released Monday, and its Jan. 31 home date with the Shockers is as seismic as MVC contests get. Meanwhile, Loyola, Evansville and Illinois State are in the RPI top 100. Over time, it is pure fantasy to expect that any team in that latter group could outlast Wichita State for a regular-season title. But one of those teams might prove capable of knocking off Wichita State in the conference tournament in March.
“I think the league is getting healthy again,” Elgin said.
If this is true, there remains the small matter of some MVC team actually beating Wichita State. That hasn’t happened since Creighton downed the Shockers in the 2013 league tournament final. Loyola was the latest to try Sunday, and as is custom before its home games, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, a diminutive nonagenarian, delivered the pregame benediction. She took the microphone and asked the Lord to give each team a “fair chance to win,” and at some level, that seemed less a prayer than usual, because Loyola actually led until 1:59 left in the first half.
But for all the verve the Ramblers demonstrated before an expectant home crowd, they, too, fell short. As the last few seconds ran off the clock, Baker holstered the ball on his hip while Wichita State freshman Rashard Kelly half-kiddingly motioned to the Shockers star to take it to the rim. Baker stoically shook his head and stood still. The business was done here. Another test from another conference foe came and went. A new reality hadn’t arrived just yet.