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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bad loss reorders season for WSU


I think we agree that Evansville is a bad basketball team.

The Aces, even with their win Tuesday night against Wichita State, are 1-13 in the Missouri Valley Conference, likely headed for 1-17.

I also think we agree that the Shockers are a good basketball team. They're 20-6 and could get to 25 wins.

So how does bad beat good?

Is it a fluke? Is it a case of Evansville having a great night and Wichita State having a horrible one? Were the Shockers looking past Evansville? Were the Purple Aces inexplicably ready for this game?

It's the latest mystery of the universe but it is not, as some WSU fans have suggested, just another game. There was too much on the line.

With the loss, WSU almost assuredly kicked its NCAA Tournament at-large chance to the curb. Not to mention how embarrassing it must be to lose to a team that doesn't even think it can win, having dropped 14 games in a row.

You can make the case that the loss is the worst defeat in WSU basketball history because of the: (a) embarrassment; (b) stakes; (c) timing.

WSU hadn't lost to a Valley team as woeful as Evansville in 40 seasons.

Forty seasons!

The 1969-70 Memphis State Tigers won 1 of 16 conference games. That win was against Wichita State on Jan. 29, 1970, an 85-81 win in Memphis.

That Shocker team, though, was 3-13 in the Valley, far from an NCAA Tournament caliber-team. The shock of losing to Memphis State wasn't anything like the shock of losing to Evansville.

Memphis State had a 3-45 record as a Valley member from 1967-70. Two wins were against WSU.

That bad Memphis stretch, though, was nothing compared to the nine seasons endured by North Texas State in the Valley from 1957-66, when the Mean Green was 11-107 in conference play.

One of those wins, though, came against WSU, North Texas' only MVC win during the 1959-60 season.

That Wichita State team was 6-8 in the Valley, again not close to being NCAA Tournament caliber.

I thought this team was. I thought so even after the Shockers lost at Drake on Jan. 23. I thought so after the Shockers rallied from 15 points down to beat Indiana State on Saturday night at Koch Arena.

I didn't think there was any way the Shockers would lose at Evansville. Then I watched an uninspired team go through the motions for 40 minutes and suffer one of the program's most humiliating defeats.

Now, to make the NCAAs, WSU will have to win the Valley tournament next month. Since the Shockers haven't even been in the championship game of that tournament in the 19 years it has been played in St. Louis, that's asking a lot.

What WSU sacrificed was wiggle room, not that the Shockers had a lot in the first place.

Perhaps those of us who saw WSU as an NCAA Tournament team were getting ahead of ourselves. Obviously, the Shockers don't yet have the maturity or the determination to reach that level.

The loss at Drake was bad enough, but at least the Bulldogs were going good at the time and had beaten some other quality Valley teams at home.

Losing to Evansville does not come with the caveat of an explanation. This loss leaves everyone — players, coaches, fans — searching.

Of course, it doesn't ruin what has been a breakthrough season for the Shockers and Coach Gregg Marshall. Wichita State's progression toward becoming an elite Valley team continues, but with potholes nobody saw coming.

It's important for the Shockers not to allow the Evansville loss to set off a losing streak. Who knows how this group of players will respond? We'll find out on Valentine's Day, when the Shockers are at Koch Arena against Missouri State.

WSU still has a lot to play for. But I struggle with people who want to blow off this defeat as "just one game" and fail to comprehend what it did to a promising season.

Sure, the Shockers can still get to the NCAA Tournament, but they've made it much more difficult. And getting to the NCAAs is what it's all about in college basketball.

The Shockers can show me something by regrouping, beating Missouri State and Evansville at home and then going on the road and playing with focus, energy and intelligence at Utah State in the their Feb. 20 Bracketbusters game.

I'm not writing off WSU. But the discrepancy between best and worst with this team is still too wide for WSU to be considered more than what it is: A good team with major flaws.

Read Eagle sports columnist Bob Lutz's "Lutz on the Loose" columns periodically at Kansas.com/sports. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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