CHICAGO — Wichita State is the nation’s lone unbeaten team, Sports Illustrated cover-worthy and Missouri Valley Conference champion.
Fun trip to Chicago for the lads, who handled Loyola 88-74 at Gentile Arena. The third-ranked Shockers clinched at least a tie for the MVC title and can win it outright on Saturday against Drake at Koch Arena. The top seed in the conference tournament is theirs because they own the tiebreaker over Indiana State.
“That’s been our No. 1 goal all year,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “Everybody’s talking about undefeated and the Final Four and we’re just trying to win the conference.”
To add to the fun, Boston College’s upset of No. 1 Syracuse left WSU (28-0, 15-0 MVC) as Division I’s only spotless team, all on the day Sports Illustrated hit mailboxes and magazine racks with WSU’s starters proclaimed the unbeaten Monsters of the Midwest.
VanVleet, in front of family and friends from Rockford, Ill., about 90 miles away, played near-perfect basketball. He tied a career-high with 22 points, making all six of his shots and all 10 of his free throws. He grabbed eight rebounds, handed out six assists and asserted his lone turnover was actually a blocked shot.
“You can’t feel more confident than I do when he’s got the ball in his hands,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s so tough. He’s so smart. Basically, a perfect stat line.”
The Shockers, again barraged by questions about perfect seasons and the NCAA Tournament, politely pushed it all aside.
“We just play basketball,” WSU forward Cleanthony Early said. “The undefeated thing is cool, but it means more to (other people).”
The undefeated thing is cool, and the Shockers are the coolest in the nation. They became the 18th team to reach 28-0 and the first since Illinois went 29-0 in 2004-05. Syracuse’s upset loss proved what Marshall has been saying all along — winning shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“You can lose to anybody any night,” he said. “Home, away. The other team has a coach. They’ve got 13 scholarship players. When that ball is tossed up, they want to win.”
The Ramblers (9-18, 4-11) never led, despite a boost from a season-high crowd of 4,577. They shot 50 percent in the second half, largely by driving to the basket and Marshall didn’t like his team’s defense. It barely mattered, however, because the Shockers did so many other things right.
WSU outrebounded Loyola 41-24 and scored 19 second-chance points. They outscored the Ramblers by 20 points at the foul line by making 31 of 34 free throws.
“Their bigs just physically overpowered our bigs,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “That rebounding margin was tell-tale.”
Milton Doyle led Loyola with 18 points. Jeff White added 14.
The Shockers led 39-32 at halftime. Ron Baker’s steal on the first possession signaled things to come. WSU opened the half with a 13-4 run to build a 52-36 lead. Chadrack Lufile converted two three-point plays during the run. Foul trouble began to hurt the Ramblers with Doyle picking up his third and Nick Osborne his fourth early in the half.
The Shockers asserted their physical superiority in the second half, dominating the backboards. They scored 11 second-chance points in the first 8:30 of the half. Nick Wiggins followed in Early’s miss for a 58-44 lead. Early then stole a pass near halfcourt and converted a three-point play with 11:31 to play for a 61-44 lead.
Loyola made a final run, cutting the lead to 69-58 with 5:32 to play. The Shockers responded with a 5-0 run, all by Early, to go up 74-58. The Shockers made two strong defensive plays to protect the lead. Darius Carter blocked a layup by White and Tekele Cotton’s hard contest forced Doyle into airballing a jumper.
VanVleet then found Carter at the rim with a no-look pass. Carter dunked with one hand, drew a foul, and made his free throw for a 77-60 lead.