COLORADO SPRINGS — Playing on the road isn’t fun. Players get heckled. Basketball locker rooms are small and cold. The opposition plays with confidence.
While that may be true, playing on the road is more fun than most Wichita State practices, which are generally a no-blood, no-foul, no-whining zone. That helps explain WSU’s strong road record in recent seasons.
The Shockers, 7-0 for the first time since 2006-07 and on the verge of cracking the Associated Press Top 25, travel to Air Force (5-1) on Sunday in the Missouri Valley Conference-Mountain West Conference Challenge Series. Even with a roster makeover, they are off to a good start away from Koch Arena.
WSU won at Virginia Commonwealth in its first road game and went 2-0 on a neutral court in the Cancun Challenge. WSU went 10-2 on the road in 2010-11 and 10-1 last season. WSU freshman Fred VanVleet learned quickly that the Shockers don’t celebrate wildly after road wins.
“They take pride in it and give you a standard to live up to,” he said. “Wins are the road are expected.”
The Shockers won’t face many places with louder fans than VCU. They won’t face many teams with a more physical, disruptive defense. They prepared that way and enjoyed quieting the crowd with a composed performance in front of a crowd of 7,693.
WSU often plays that way on the road and its newcomers now know how that happens. Coaches don’t call fouls in scrimmages. Coaches yell. Teammates go after each other with no concern for bruised egos or bodies.
“The week preparing for VCU, practice was real and it was hard,” junior Cleanthony Early said. “You might get frustrated, but then you get in the game and you see that guy coming to trap you, and it’s not as aggressive as it was in practice, and you’re doing everything you need to do.… you’ve already faced the worst of the situation.”
VanVleet can handle two hours of madness in the Koch Arena practice gym by looking forward to 40 minutes of relief on the road.
“It almost makes the game easier,” he said. “When you go on the road, it’s just a different atmosphere. At the same time, every day in practice you face tough environments and adversity. They create a crazy environment every day in practice so that when we do go out on the road and play at a VCU, we’ll be just fine.”
Coach Gregg Marshall wants to make practices harder than games — home or away.
“Every day, we’re going to find a little bit of stress that they’ve got to play through or overcome,” he said.
Sunday’s stressors will come in the form of Air Force’s outside shooters. The Falcons are making 42 percent of their three-pointers (74 of 176) and its average of 10.6 a game ranks second nationally. Coach Dave Pilipovich fills the court with players who can shoot and pass and runs his version of the Princeton offense, with lots of cutting, moving and backdoor plays.
“You’ve got to be able to guard all different ways against them,” Marshall said. “After they play fast, they go to their Princeton stuff. It’s fast to slow.”
Air Force averages 82 points — against a schedule that includes two NCAA Division II opponents — and changing its reputation. It is running more, after makes and misses, than it did last season when it averaged 61.6 points and went 13-16.
“We want to attack the basket,” Pilipovich said. “If that means pushing the ball, then we do. If we have an open look six to eight seconds into the possession, we will take it because sometimes it is harder to manufacture a good shot later in the shot clock.”
Clune Arena will present WSU with a different atmosphere than most of its road games. The Falcons haven’t drawn more than 1,547 fans to their arena, which seats 5,858. Colorado Springs’ elevation of 6,305 feet above sea level may also be a factor. In the end, the Shockers want to treat their visit to the beautiful campus at the base of the Rocky Mountains like a routine trip to Peoria or Evansville.
“You get that adrenalin rush when you walk into somebody else’s (arena) and everybody’s booing you,” Early said. “It’s like, ‘Now it’s time to eat, or get eaten.’ ”