ST. LOUIS — Wichita State started the season confident it embraced its defensive identity and understood that path to victory.
Any slip is a problem for a team that isn’t blessed with overwhelming scoring talent. WSU’s defense slipped dramatically during a three-game losing streak in early February. Now it enters the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament again looking to regain its defensive identity. Creighton shredded the Shockers for 70.2-percent shooting in a 91-79 win Saturday. Evansville made 8 of 14 three-pointers in a 59-56 win at Koch Arena.
“We had some defensive breakdowns,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Instead of switching onto a guy, which we were trying to do, we blew the switch. Or we didn’t communicate and cover for another guy in transition. Those things we can’t do against teams that can shoot the ball like those last two teams.”
Even with the issues in the final two games, WSU led the Valley in scoring defense (60.8 points), shooting defense (40.4 percent), blocked shots (4.4) and rebounding defense (29.8 a game). It won the MVC’s Defensive Team of the Year for a third straight time.
That identity is right there, waiting for the Shockers to regain.
“Getting back to playing defense how we were early in the year, not letting teams score over 60 points on us,” WSU guard Demetric Williams said.
Depth pays — The Shockers play nine players 10 or more minutes. The return of guard Ron Baker, out since mid-December with a stress fracture, adds another healthy body to the mix.
In a three-games-in-three-days scenario, WSU is in better shape than most to stay fresh.
“We’re going to sub freely,” Marshall said. “I’m going to believe in my bench, which I’ve done all year. I’m just going to ask them to go as hard as they possibly can for four or five minutes and then get a blow.”
Not my job — Talk of Creighton’s possible departure to a new conference made up of private Big East schools dominates the conversation, on and off the record.
Coach Greg McDermott hears it all and adds nothing.
“Myself, my staff and my team is not on the need-to-know list,” he said. “So there’s no chatter going on with us. We know nothing.”
Seven Catholic schools are separating from the Big East and looking for similar schools to join a conference that values basketball above football. Creighton, Butler, Xavier, Dayton and Saint Louis are mentioned in numerous reports as the top candidates.
Another defensive challenge — Illinois State’s Tyler Brown scored 28 points, making 4 of 5 three-pointers, in Saturday’s 80-72 loss to Northern Iowa. The teams meet again Friday and covering Brown is a problem not many teams can solve. Panthers senior Marc Sonnen will get most of the duty on Brown.
“Because he scores in so many ways, he’s a hard guy to slow down,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “He can catch and shoot, drive it off the ball screen, get to the basket and get to the free-throw line.”
Brown, a senior guard, is averaging 22.9 points over the past 10 games.
Sonnen provides his own challenge. In two wins over Illinois State, he made 11 of 21 shots and averaged 17 points.
Sunday special — Indiana State won the tournament in 2011, guard Jake Odum’s freshman season. Last season, WSU swept them out in the quarterfinals with a 72-48 rout.
“When we won the tournament our freshman year, it’s probably the happiest time of my whole life,” Odum said. “There’s no better feeling than that. As for not being successful in the tournament, it’s heart-breaking. There’s thousands of hours put into it with film and practice and when you don’t accomplish that goal, it’s not a good feeling.”
The Sycamores open the tournament against Evansville on Friday. Forward Manny Arop, suspended the past two games for an unspecified violation of team rules, is with the team and is expected to play.
Worth noting — WSU is the No. 2 seed for the fourth time in St. Louis. Its best finish came in 2010, when it lost in the title game to top-seeded Northern Iowa.… Jacobson has gone 3-0 against MVC opponents three times, beating Bradley and Illinois State in 2009 and Drake in 2010.… Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael has 14 double-doubles, most in the MVC and 14th nationally.… Creighton is 8-1 as the top seed and won three titles in four appearances as the No. 1 seed.… Evansville guard Colt Ryan enters the tournament with 2,173 points. He has averaged 13 in four games in the MVC Tournament with a high of 19. The Aces defeated Missouri State in last season’s quarterfinals, snapping a six-game skid that started in the 2006 tournament.