Wichita State did it again without its A-game. The Shockers win a lot of games that leave you wanting more. And for that, I give them an A.
No. 4 WSU went into the Hulman Center, clad in blue craziness, and beat Indiana State 65-58 on Wednesday night.
The Shockers had all kinds of problems getting to Terre Haute, Ind., because of a blanket of snow over most of the Midwest, and there were many frigid stretches in the game. Lots of missed shots, lots of missed opportunities.
It’s a loss that will keep Indiana State up at night, because the Sycamores had chances.
And it’s a win that will keep WSU high in the national rankings, although it feels like there’s still so much room for this team to get better. Which is a crazy thing to say about a club that is 24-0, one of only two unbeatens left in America, and plays on the road better than any team in the country.
The Shockers were out-rebounded by six. That rarely happens. They committed one turnovers than Indiana State. And WSU shot 42.6 percent from the field and 63.3 percent from the line.
But even when the secondary numbers don’t add up, the primary numbers — those on the scoreboard — do.
Still, not one Wichita State player had anything close to his best game.
The guard tandem of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet combined for 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting. Baker got into foul trouble and spent a good chunk of the second half on the bench.
Senior forward Cleanthony Early scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half. It’s a good thing he did, because his first half was forgettable. He had four points and failed to guard Indiana State forward Manny Arop, who scored 14 of his 16 in the first 20 minutes.
Tekele Cotton was Tekele Cotton. He’s steady, tough, focused and calm. He had 14 points and five assists, but did take a couple of questionable three-point shots in the second half when it seemed none of the Shockers wanted the ball in their hands.
Then there was senior center Chadrack Lufile, who may be the exception — he may have played his best game. He had eight points, 10 rebounds, hit 4 of 6 free throws in the last 90 seconds and was a big factor in the final couple of minutes.
It remains so difficult to judge just where Wichita State is. We know the Shockers are good. But the competition in the Valley makes it hard to analyze just how good.
Yes, Indiana State is a nice team. But the Sycamores are nothing more than that. They shot 32 percent and have averaged 53 points in two games against Wichita State.
What WSU has that no other team in the Valley has is an abundance of good, tough players. And an excellent coach, Gregg Marshall, whose decisions almost always work out for the best.
It was wise, for instance, to pull Early off of Arop, who was all over the place in the first half. Early looked a step slow trying to keep up.
Given less defensive responsibility in the second half, Early’s offense came alive. Meanwhile, Baker and Cotton took turns taking Arop out of the Sycamores’ offense.
Wednesday night’s game was easily the most dangerous of the season. Indiana State is a senior-dominated team that was embarrassed by the Shockers in Wichita, losing by 20. A near-sellout crowd turned out on a cold, snowy night.
But the Sycamores couldn’t pull it off. And the Shockers play one team with a winning record — Missouri State (16-7) — the rest of the regular season. Their next six opponents are a combined 59-70 overall, 23-41 in the Valley.
The Shockers can’t go to sleep against Northern Iowa on Saturday night in Cedar Falls. Strange things happen in Cedar Falls. But the Panthers have lost 4 of 5, though just one of those defeats was at home.
Wichita State could be getting lulled into mediocrity at times by this conference. At some point, the Shockers are going to need afterburners. The rest of the schedule looks good if you’re one who desperately wants this team to achieve a 31-0 regular-season record.
But it doesn’t look so good if you want to see the Shockers pushed to be better.
Winning at Indiana State is a big deal in a Missouri Valley Conference that doesn’t present too many challenges. But the Sycamores aren’t anything close to the kind of team the Shockers will ultimately see in March.
That’s when they’ll need their A-game, for sure. It would be nice for them to dust it off a few times before that time arrives.