ST. LOUIS — Lurking across the bracket from Wichita State are the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, both eager to show what momentum means after five days off.
Second-seeded Indiana State is convinced it means nothing. The Sycamores lost three straight games and haven’t been the same since losing to WSU on Feb. 5. Third-seeded Northern Iowa has won three in a row and 5 of 6, including at Indiana State on Saturday.
“We locked up the second seed, took a tough one to Wichita and it really got us down,” Indiana State guard Jake Odum said. “We really can’t do that as a veteran team. I think we bounced back strong. We turned it up a couple of notches in practice, and we’ve really been locked in the last week.”
Indiana State coach Greg Lansing says he’s not nearly as concerned as the Terre Haute media and Sycamore fans. Losses at Missouri State and at Illinois State — teams desperate to stay out of Thursday’s play-in games — bothered him. The Sycamores, in his mind, righted themselves to a large extent by playing harder in the 71-69 loss to Northern Iowa.
“I think we were a little complacent, and that starts with me,” he said. “We got outplayed on the road by two good teams that were fighting for a third seed, and I don’t expect any of that to have any effect on them in our preparation (for Friday). I think we’ve had good practices leading up to this.”
To make a run in St. Louis, the Sycamores need to fix their offense, especially when teams play zone defense. They haven’t scored more than 66 points in four of their past five games.
In early February, UNI coach Ben Jacobson changed his starting lineup to go with better defenders and rebounders. Power forward Marvin Singleton replaced Chip Rank. Guard Wes Washpun replaced Deon Mitchell. Both moves, and making freshman wing Jeremy Morgan a permanent starter, provided the Panthers more size and athletic ability.
“Having Jeremy in the starting lineup on the wing gives us more size than when Deon and Wes were starting together,” Jacobson said. “And Wes as our starting point guard is bigger and longer than Deon is.”
In four of those five wins, the Panthers held opponents under 59 points.
“Finally, we found a groove on the defensive end,” UNI junior Seth Tuttle said.
Jacobson expected some slow growth on defense this season with turnover on his roster. Rank and Mitchell helped taking the demotion to the reserves in good spirits and continuing to practice hard.
“I would say it took us longer than what any of us would have liked, players and coaches included,” Jacobson said.
Thurman’s year — Things didn’t start out very well for Missouri State forward and Wichita native Gavin Thurman this season, and the 6-foot-8 sophomore acknowledges as much.
“My coach wanted more out of me and he stayed on me,” said Thurman, a Heights graduate. “I appreciate him for not letting me slack and I think I’ve picked up my game toward the end of the year.
“This is going to be a big offseason for me, a big summer for me to get better and put in the work. I need to get quicker, and I think that will help me get better on the defensive end and with rebounding.”
Note how he didn’t mention offense.
Missouri State coach Paul Lusk’s frustration with Thurman wasn’t regarding what he can do scoring the ball. Thurman showed early in the season he’s a scoring threat, dropping 14 points in only 13 minutes during an early-season loss to ACC champion Virginia.
It was Thurman’s defense and rebounding, or lack thereof, that earned him a place on the bench, not seeing the court in four games. But since registering his last DNP in a win over Bradley on Jan. 8, Thurman has been a permanent fixture in the Bears’ lineup and could be the X-factor in Friday’s MVC Tournament opener against Illinois State.
“We’re focused on doing what we have to do to beat Illinois State,” said Thurman, who averages 5.7 points and 2 rebounds in 13.5 minutes. “And hopefully we’ll put together three good games in a row.”
Thurman, who was offered a scholarship by Wichita State, played youth basketball with WSU guard Evan Wessel and has struck up a friendship with many Shockers.
“I’m good friends with a lot of their players,” Thurman said. “It’s weird because I grew up a WSU fan and always cheering for the Shockers, but when I get out there (against WSU) it’s just another game.”
Driving force — The return of junior forward Nate Buss is also sparking UNI. He missed three games, including a loss to Wichita State, in early February due to a knee injury.
In the six games since returning, Buss is 15 of 18 from three-point range and averaging 10.3 points. He contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds at Indiana State on Saturday.
“It’s hard for teams to double so much in the post knowing that we can kick it out and get a reversal pass, and if it ends up in Buss’ hands, you know, he’s been hot lately,” Tuttle said.
Hot talk — Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson reached a melting point after a Dec. 17 loss at Murray State. His infamous postgame speech went viral, thanks to such gems as calling his team soft and uncoachable and characterizing the play of his guards as awful.
“My wife, my wife can score more than two buckets on 11 shots because I know my wife will at least shot fake one time,” he said in the most memorable moment.
SIU survived the uproar and finished as the No. 6 seed to escape Thursday’s play-in round for the first time since 2009.
“I really didn’t take it too personally because Coach was right,” SIU senior Desmar Jackson said. “We needed to play harder. We were playing soft. I feel like it brought us together. We just had to come together and just talk about the situation and how we can move forward.”
The Salukis won three of their past four games and 7 of 10. An injury to point guard Marcus Fillyaw moved sophomore Anthony Beane to that spot and he responded by averaging 22.6 points over the past nine games and earning second-team All-MVC honors.
Hinson hasn’t changed his outspoken style.
“I’ve always been that way,” he said. “I’m a volcano. I erupt. I say what’s on my heart.”
Welcoming committee — Wichita State fans exiting off I-64 to the Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis — from the east or the west — will be greeted by some familliar faces on their final approach to the arena.
The last three billboards coming in from the west are graced by Shockers, The first is of All-MVC forward Cleanthony Early, purchased by the MVC for promoting the tournament. The second and third are of senior Kadeem Coleby dunking and one of senior Nick Wiggins putting up his “three goggles” after hitting a three-pointer.
In all, eight billboards in and around the downtown area feature Shockers, seven of them put there by WSU. Shockers with their own billboards are Early, Coleby, Wiggins, Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker, MVC player of the year Fred VanVleet and WSU coach Gregg Marshall. Each of the billboards, purchased by WSU in conjunction with CBSSports properties, features the well-known hashtag #watchus and “Welcome to Shocker Nation.”
The billboard space was purchased about one month ago, according to WSU associate athletic director of marketing and strategic communications John Brewer.
“Each of the billboards is unique, and we tried to place them as close to the arena as possible,” Brewer said. “We wanted to get them all in the heart of St. Louis. If you’re a Valley fan coming into town for the tournament, you’re probably going to see one of the billboards.”
Traffic alert — WSU fans coming Saturday or Sunday should avoid I-64 heading east toward Scottrade Center and downtown. It is scheduled to close at 8 p.m. Friday until 3 a.m. Monday.
Wessel honored — Wichita State sophomore guard Evan Wessel was named second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference scholar-athlete on Thursday. Wessel was the only Shocker on the first or second team and carries a 3.20 GPA with a major in management. Wessel comes off the bench for the Shockers, averaging 12.4 minutes.
No M&Ms — When a reporter included the term “mid-major” in a question to Marshall, he interrupted and said, “Wait a minute. You haven’t heard? The ‘MM’ term has been buried. There’s been a funeral.
“We’re a non-BCS school. We have cheerleaders. We play basketball. We just don’t have a football team. Now, what was your question?”
Seedings – Unbeaten during the regular season. Conference champs. Enough to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — or do the Shockers have to do more in St. Louis?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Marshall said. “I’m not concerned about it.”