My method for choosing games of the week doesn't always work out. I try to find interesting match ups that I hope will be close and let me learn about the teams. While there might have been better games on the schedule, this week I chose to look at the top two teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, the undefeated Wichita State Shockers and the Indiana State Sycamores. The Shockers made their way to the Final Four last year as a nine seed. Coming into Saturday, they were undefeated through 18 games, but their best win was on Dec. 1 at Saint Louis. Wichita State also had wins over BYU, Tennessee, and Alabama, but it was hard to say just how good they are.
Even though the game was in Wichita, I figured the Sycamores would present decent competition. They came in with three losses and just one bad loss (against Tulsa on Nov. 27). Larry Bird's alma mater had been beaten by Saint Louis and Belmont, which are both strong Tier 2 teams. Even more intriguing was the fact that the team had surrounded Jake Odum with some solid talent and they had five players averaging between 12.2 points (Odum) and 10.4 points (sophomore swingman Khristian Smith). Finally, they had also won their first five conference games and seven in a row overall.
For most of the first half, ISU was able to keep the score within reach and they closed to within three points at the 5:46 mark. A Ron Baker 3-pointer pushed the lead to six and the Shockers never looked back. While you might expect that WSU's size - 6-9, 266 lb forward Chadrack Lufile and likely MVC Player of the Year Cleanthony Early (6-8, 219 lbs) - would be the biggest difference, it was the Shocker guards who penetrated and shot the team to victory. Sophomore guard Fred VanVleet was the player of the game with 15 points, three assists, and three steals. Baker scored 16 points and matched VanVleet's steal total. Wichita State, even without a big game from Early (who had just six points and three boards) was solid up and down the roster. Lufile is a legitimate post presence and grabbed 11 boards.
As I've probably mentioned before, when games are getting out of hand I like to play a little game to keep things interesting. The Shockers scored the first eight points of the second half to push their lead to 16 points at 38-22. [They would score another four unanswered points before the run was over.] At that point, the first TV timeout of the second half, I made an internal bet with myself that if the Shockers made it to 50 points, the game would be over. This largely kept me from fast forwarding in the second half and things got quite close. As it turned, I won the bet since the Sycamores only made it to 48 points. Yeah, me!
The biggest questions both coming into and out of the game are: how good is Wichita State? Will they need to make another Final Four run for their season to be a success? And, can they go undefeated in regular season play? Based on this game, they are much, much better than their Missouri Valley Conference competition. They made Indiana State look like the proverbial chopped liver. Things could be different when the two teams meet in Terra Haute on Feb. 5, which is followed by a game at Northern Iowa on Feb. 8. Should they be able to win out, they could find themselves in line for a one seed in the NCAA tournament. That would be very impressive in itself. Seeing as they will not play any team of note between now and mid-March (at least on a national scale), it will be hard to know what to do with the Shockers. NCAA tournament success will depend somewhat on match up (last year, they marched through Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle, and Ohio State). I'd be a little surprised if they made it back to the Final Four, but that wouldn't demean their fantastic season in my eyes.