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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Shockers examine readiness for road

BY PAUL SUELLENTROP
The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State reigned as the Missouri Valley Conference's best road team last season. It went 8-1 in conference road games, winning seven by double digits.

The Shockers might not duplicate that success this season. There is no reason, however, they shouldn't again stay in the MVC race by quieting home fans and boarding charter flights happy.

"If we can continue to have the same mindset we had last year, play as hard as we did and focus, we should be OK," WSU senior guard Joe Ragland said. "Last year, there wasn't one game that we took on a road trip that we felt like, on the plane, that we couldn't win."

The Shockers (9-2) take a seven-game win streak to Bradley (5-7) for tonight's conference opener. WSU struggled on the road as recently as the 2009-10 season, when it went 3-6 away from Koch Arena in conference play.

Last season, with five seniors in the lead, the Shockers possessed the right combination of talent and experience. They were one of three teams to compile a winning record in MVC road games.

This season, the Shockers again take five seniors on the road, and they know how to win. Three of those seniors won two straight at Southern Illinois, where WSU lost 11 straight from 1999-2009. Last season, they snapped a 17-game losing streak at Creighton and became the third Valley team in the past 10 seasons to go 8-1 on the road.

"There's two objectives this week, and the first one is to prove we're tough enough, mentally and physically, and mature enough, tough enough, to win on the road," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.

The second is beating No. 21 Creighton on Saturday. Some of the luster comes off that game if the Shockers stumble at Bradley.

Voters — coaches, media and sports information directors — picked Bradley last in the MVC's preseason poll. The Braves, with new coach Geno Ford, appear more competitive than expected. In addition to the coaching change, Bradley lost leading scorer Andrew Warren to graduation and starting center Will Egolf to a season-ending knee injury. It already owns a road win — at George Washington. Last week, Bradley trailed No. 19 Michigan 50-49 before losing 77-66.

"They really played them well for about 32 minutes," Marshall said. "I think Geno Ford's teams are known for playing really hard."

That will not take WSU's returners by surprise. MVC play means holding, banging and grabbing. Conference play also means the element of surprise is often lost. Plays that worked against non-conference opponents are scouted and smothered. Scoring drops. Easy baskets are few.

"You've got to execute," Marshall said. "You've got to be able to score with someone climbing in your shirt-front. Or maybe your shirt-back. Or both."

Execution is a strength for the Shockers, especially during its seven-game streak. Since returning from a tournament in Puerto Rico, the Shockers are playing crisp, unselfish basketball. They are shooting 47.5 percent from the field and their assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.2 ranks third in the Valley.

"We really scored," Marshall said. "We're sharing (the ball) very well. We're rebounding it very well. There are a lot of positives."

Check Paul Suellentrop's Shocker blog at blogs.kansas.com/shockwaves. Reach him at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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