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Wichita State’s Baker ready to do more than watch Valley games

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, at 4:40 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 20, 2014, at 6:22 p.m.

Photos

No. 8 Wichita State at Southern Illinois

When: 7:05 p.m. Thursday

Where: SIU Arena, Carbondale, Ill.

Records: WSU 13-0, 0-0 MVC; SIU 4-9, 0-0

Radio: KNSS, 1330-AM

TV: None

Online: ESPN3.com

No. 8 Wichita State at Southern Illinois

PWichita St.Ht.Yr.PtsReb
FCleanthony Early6-8Sr.16.06.5
FTekele Cotton6-3Jr.10.85.0
CDarius Carter6-7Jr.8.35.3
GRon Baker6-3So.14.24.1
G Fred VanVleet6-1So.11.3x-5.2
SIU
FSean O’Brien6-6Fr.6.14.8
CDavante Drinkard6-9Sr.3.82.5
GDesmar Jackson6-5Sr.20.85.0
GMarcus Fillyaw6-1So.4.5x-2.8
G Anthony Beane6-2So.11.82.9

x-assists

Wichita State (13-0, 0-0 MVC): WSU won three straight at SIU Arena before last season’s 64-62 defeat. Baker, who has been bothered by a sprained left ankle since mid-December, participated in all practice drills on Tuesday for the first time since the injury. Carter, who started the past two games, is averaging 12.8 points and 7.6 rebounds the past five games. Early is 20 of 22 from the foul line the past three games. The Shockers went unbeaten in non-conference play for the first time since joining the MVC in 1945. Its 13 non-conference wins are the most since the 1953-54 team went 19-1 in regular-season non-conference games.

Southern Illinois (4-9, 0-0): SIU upset then-No. 22 WSU last season at SIU Arena with a small-ball lineup and a controversial goal-tending call in the final moments. “Their weakness, if they had one last year, was guarding dribble penetration,” SIU associate head coach Tom Hankins said. “Some teams you match up well with, and we just happened to match up pretty well with those guys. Hopefully, playing a top 10 team in the country, that will bring something out in somebody again Thursday night.” Beane ranks 10th in the MVC by shooting 39.5 percent from three-point range, up from 31.3 percent as a freshman. Other than Beane, SIU is shooting 25 percent from behind the arc. G Jalen Pendleton averages 19.3 points and is shooting 61 percent in SIU’s four wins. In its losses, he averages 9.2 points. The Salukis lead the MVC in steals at 7.5 a game.

RPI as of Wednesday: WSU 12, SIU 323

MVC refresher course

Rankings at the break

1. Wichita State (13-0) — Shockers looking for a rival to highlight the season with Creighton gone.

2. Indiana State (10-3) — One-point losses to Belmont, Tulsa keeping Sycamores from NCAA bubble.

3. Missouri State (10-2) — Bears went 3-10 in non-conference games last season.

4. Illinois State (7-5) — Redbirds 6-1 since a 1-3 start with wins over Dayton, DePaul.

5. Northern Iowa (7-6) — Tough schedule and not enough wins for the Panthers.

6. Drake (10-3) — Bulldogs are a pleasant surprise, but their best win is over Nebraska-Omaha.

7. Evansville (7-7) — Two non-Division I wins and a home loss to Jackson State spoil things.

8. Bradley (5-9) — MVC’s biggest disappointment has lost six straight, three at home.

9. Loyola (5-8) — Four losses to teams ranked No. 275 or worse in the RPI.

10. Southern Illinois (4-9) — Salukis piling up close losses: Four by four or fewer points.

On the plus side

This season figured to be a step back for the MVC, even before Creighton’s departure, because of graduation losses throughout the conference. So maybe No. 12 in the RPI and a 75-49 record isn’t so bad. The MVC finished No. 11 in 2011 with Creighton. RPIforecast.com predicts five MVC schools will finish in the top 100, same as the Mountain West and one more than the West Coast conferences.

On the negative side

No team other than Wichita State is close to the NCAA Tournament. Until a program emerges to compensate for Creighton’s loss, the MVC’s prestige and power ranking will slip. Bradley’s flop, which includes home losses to IUPUI and IPFW, is a major downer.

November/December’s top player

It is hard to choose from among three Shockers, so let’s go with guard Ron Baker by a tissue-thin margin over teammates Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet. Baker’s string of four games with 20 or more points got the Shockers through a tough stretch while its post players developed. Early is on a roll with back-to-back double doubles and is the only player to rank in the top five in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (6.5). VanVleet leads the MVC in assists (5.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.7).

November/December’s top coach

Voters picked Drake last in the preseason poll. First-year coach Ray Giacoletti has the Bulldogs winning and that’s impressive, regardless of the strength of schedule. They are 3-1 since losing guard Gary Ricks Jr., their second-leading scorer, for the season to a broken foot.

Who’s hot

•  SIU’s Desmar Jackson averages 20.8 points and 5.0 rebounds,while raising his shooting percentage to 48.7 from 43.9 last season.

•  Evansville sophomore D.J. Balentine is making 41.9 percent of his threes and averages 22.8 points. He scored 29 or more points in Evansville’s first five games.

•  Missouri State guard Marcus Marshall is averaging 16.3 points in four games since returning from a knee injury.

•  Indiana State’s Manny Arop is shooting 48.8 percent from three-point range (20 of 41) and averaging 12.9 points. He is 21 of 23 from the foul line.

Who’s not

•  Bradley guard Walt Lemon Jr., a preseason All-MVC pick, is shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 21.2 percent from three-point range.

•  Northern Iowa’s Matt Bohanan is 15 of 66 (22.7 percent) from three-point range after shooting 38.6 percent last season.

•  SIU’s big men. Starter Davante Drinkard averages 3.8 points and the reserves aren’t much of a threat to score, either.

•  Bradley, which ranks last in the MVC in scoring (66.2 points) and three-point shooting (28.1 percent).

Paul Suellentrop

Wichita State guard Ron Baker starts his third tour of Missouri Valley Conference arenas. It is time to do more than watch.

“I’m looking forward to Valley play, because I haven’t played in it,” he said. “You get a lot more concentration and focus on your opponent, so that’s pretty exciting.”

No. 8 WSU (13-0) opens MVC play on Thursday at Southern Illinois (4-9) and most of the conference, including the Salukis, will deal with Baker for the first time. He has played more games against the Big East (four) and SEC (three) than MVC teams (two current members).

Baker traveled with the Shockers in 2011-12 while he redshirted. Last season, he traveled with the team while sitting out all 18 conference games with a stress fracture in his left foot. So MVC play is new, yet not so new, to Baker, who returned last season to play in MVC Tournament games against Missouri State, Illinois State and now-departed Creighton. He’s seen enough to know that conference play tests teams in a different way than non-conference games.

“It’s something you can’t really describe,” he said. “You can always tell stories about different road trips and different games, but you can never describe how intense Valley play is until you really experience it.”

The Shockers started the season as a heavy favorite in the MVC and November and December added to the perception. WSU owns a No. 12 RPI rank and the closest MVC team is Drake at No. 69. WSU is 2-0 against top-50 teams. The rest of the MVC is 1-13. There is more, only serving to drive home the point that WSU should win its second MVC title in the past three years.

WSU does not, however, expect it come easy. While fans and the national media may predict a joy ride to March with little resistance from the likes of Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Evansville, the Shockers are not buying it.

“Anybody who thinks that has never been through the Valley,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said.

On Tuesday, WSU coach Gregg Marshall emphasized that each team is 0-0. He knows visits from the Shockers will likely attract the largest crowds of the season in most arenas with fans ready to rush the court. Last season’s Final Four team went 5-4 in MVC road games, losing at Evansville, Northern Iowa, SIU and Creighton.

“I told them you’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” he said. “The people who are anticipating a stroll through the park have not ever done it.”

Marshall expects that emotion on Thursday, in part because of the circumstances. The Salukis are 2-1 since coach Barry Hinson delivered his much-publicized speech after a loss at Murry State. They dropped a 67-65 game at Miami (Ohio) on Sunday without Hinson, who took time off after the death of his son-in-law on Christmas.

“They’re going to rally around Coach Hinson, I’m sure,” he said.

Hinson returned to practice on Tuesday.

I think it was good for him to get back with the guys and get in the gym and back to doing what he enjoys doing,” associate head coach Tom Hankins said. “We didn't think he was coming back until (Wednesday). He's just at a point where he needed to get back in the gym, so he got back early.”

SIU lost to No. 25 Missouri and Saint Louis. Hankins calls the Shockers a different challenge.

“Playing those high-level teams definitely helped us get ready for these guys,” he said. “However, neither one of those teams — Mizzou's talented, but they're not as deep as these guys.”

Conference play is traditionally known as a time when scouting reports rule and familiarity slows the pace. Last season, WSU averaged 72 points in non-conference and NCAA Tournament games and 67.8 points against conference opponents. In VanVleet’s mind, that means execution become more important when defenses are ready for many plays.

The Shockers appear ready for that challenge with a team that averages 9.8 turnovers, fewest in the MVC, and leads the conference with a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“Coaches know each other well and teams know each other well,” VanVleet said. “You don’t get to steal as many easy baskets.”

WSU needs one win to tie the school’s record for consecutive wins. Records like that don’t come easily and MVC schools will want no part of extending that streak.

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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